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Buried US Internet infrastructure at risk as sea levels rise

Thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cable in densely populated coastal regions of the United States may soon be inundated by rising seas, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Oregon.

The study, presented at a meeting of Internet network researchers, portrays critical communications infrastructure that could be submerged by rising seas in as soon as 15 years, according to the study’s senior author, Paul Barford, a UW–Madison professor of computer science.

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” says Barford, an authority on the ‘physical Internet’ — the buried fiber optic cables, data centers, traffic exchanges and termination points that are the nerve centers, arteries and hubs of the vast global information network. “That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

The study, conducted with Barford’s former student Ramakrishnan Durairajan, now of the University of Oregon, and Carol Barford, who directs UW–Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, is the first assessment of risk of climate change to the Internet. It suggests that by the year 2033 more than 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic conduit will be underwater and more than 1,100 traffic hubs will be surrounded by water. The most susceptible US cities, according to the report, are New York, Miami and Seattle, but the effects would not be confined to those areas and would ripple across the Internet, says Barford, potentially disrupting global communications.

The peer-reviewed study combined data from the Internet Atlas, a comprehensive global map of the Internet’s physical structure, and projections of sea level incursion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA

Many of the conduits at risk are already close to sea level and only a slight rise in ocean levels due to melting polar ice and thermal expansion as climate warms will be needed to expose buried fiber optic cables to sea water. Hints of the problems to come, says Barford, can be seen in the catastrophic storm surges and flooding that accompanied hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

Buried fiber optic cables are designed to be water-resistant, but unlike the marine cables that ferry data from continent to continent under the ocean, they are not waterproof.

The impact of mitigation such as sea walls, according to the study, are difficult to predict. “The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure,” Barford says. “But keeping the sea at bay is hard. We can probably buy a little time, but in the long run it’s just not going to be effective.”

In addition to looking at the risk to local and long-haul infrastructure in the nation’s coastal areas, the study examined the risk to the buried assets of individual Internet service providers. It found the networks of CenturyLink, Inteliquent and AT&T to be at highest risk.

https://news.wisc.edu



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