Forget Hackers And Cyberwarfare, Rising Sea Levels Could Pose The Biggest Threat To The Internet

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Forget about Internet on Mars and Li-Fi, the Internet we rely on to run our hospitals, feed our cities, tweet celebrities, and watch animals do stupid things here on Earth could be at risk – and rising sea levels are to blame.

The Internet relies on a large physical network combining colossal data centers and thousands of kilometers of fiber optic cable buried underground. If this was to somehow falter (whether through cyberwarfare, space weather, or climate change), things could get bad pretty quick.

As a recent peer-reviewed study highlights, this infrastructure (the so-called "physical Internet") is not currently built to withstand significant changes in sea level. Even more worryingly, we could see the consequences of this as soon as 2033. 

Much of this infrastructure is buried and follows long-established rights of way, typically paralleling highways and coastlines, Paul Barford, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of computer science and an authority on the “physical Internet”, said in a statement.

"When it was built 20-25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change."

Barford presented the study at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Internet Society. and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers on July 16. While there has been research into rising sea levels and urban infrastructures such as roads, housing, and even entire islands, this appears to be the first assessment examining the risk that rising sea levels pose to the Internet.

The results aren't great. Within 15 years as many as 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) of buried fiber optic conduit could be submerged and 1,100 traffic hubs could be besieged by water. 

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Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033. Sections shaded blue are predicted to be underwater by 2033. Long-haul fiber cables are represented by the green lines. Paul Barford/University of Wisconsin-Madison

The team came to this conclusion after overlaying Sea Level Rise Inundation data on the Internet Atlas, which allowed them to compare the forecasted sea level rises with a map detailing the Internet's physical network.

The network has been designed to tolerate some water, but it is only water-resistant, not waterproof. This means that the forecasted level of flooding could pose a serious risk to the functioning of the Internet as we use it today. The storm surges that followed Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina hint at the problems to come, Barford added. 

The worst-affected areas will be low-lying coastal cities. The researchers specifically named New York, Miami, and Seattle as high risk. However, if the network in these areas is damaged the effects will "ripple" across the Internet, Barford says. This is because these cities are where transoceanic marine cables come ashore and it is these transoceanic marine cables that link the US to the rest of the world, at least from an online point of view.

So, what can we do? Hardening the infrastructure may delay the inevitable but it won't be effective in the long run, Barford explained. This study should be seen as a "wake-up call".

"Most of the damage that's going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later," warned Barford.

"That surprised us. The expectation was that we'd have 50 years to plan for it. We don't have 50 years."

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