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Chris Wright

Chris Wright

Managing Director

“When it was built 20-25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change.” – Paul Barford

If you think Kim Kardashian can “Break the Internet”, you’re going to hate what rising sea levels will do.

In a meeting of internet network researchers today, computer scientists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Oregon highlighted that rising sea levels could literally get ‘Thanos’ over thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cable around the USA.

The reserch led by Paul Barford warned that rising seas could submerge up to 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic cables – the things that carry internet signal around the world (believe it or not, its not satellites).

Here’s an example of the fibre optic conduit in the USA. See the focus in the North and South East; well guess where sea levels are going to rise?

Here is a map of expected Sea level rise in the North East according to NOAA .

The dark blue = expected inundated areas with Sea Level rise

Most of the world’s internet signal travels around the world through deep-sea fibre-optic cables, and coastal fibre optic conduit. As you can imagine, no worries about the deep sea stuff, its waterproof.

But when the signal wants to cross onto land, it has to meet fibre-optic conduit that’s stored near to the surface above ground. That’s the stuff in trouble.

“When it was built 20-25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change.” said Barford.

Oh, great idea guys!

It’s the first study of its kind that looked into the risk that rising seas could cause to Internet infrastructure. It suggests that by as soon as the year 2033 not only all of those miles of buried fiber optic conduit (often in coastal areas, or along highways) will be underwater, but also more than 1,100 traffic hubs are at risk as well.

As you can imagine, the most endangered infrastrucure are the big cities near the coast. Luckily there’s no cities like that in the US right?

Oh, maybe New York, San  Miami and Seattle (the home of Amazon!)

Here’s what Miami’s going to look like in 2033.

Undersea cables, long haul fiber cables and metro fiber cables are in the red/green/black lines respectively. Anything in the blue shaded areas is estimated to be underwater in 15 years, according to NOAA

Seawater inundation projected for Miami by 2033

(Paul! It’s bloody all in blue shaded areas)

Barford reassuringly highlighted though that the effects would not be confined to those areas alone, but would “ripple across the internet, potentially disrupting global communications.”

Oh, thanks Paul!

“The landing points [between underwater cable and on-land cable] are all going to be underwater in a short period of time,” he notes.

How short Paul?

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later…The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

Just incase you missed it above, Paul and his co-researchers, Carol Barford and his former student Ramakrishnan Durairajan, think the internet’s in trouble in the next 15 years.

I know, I’m not sure if Game of Thrones will be finished by then either.

So I wonder if Paul thinks there is a chance to avoid Netflix-mageddon?

“The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure” [like sea-walls]…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.”

Great Paul. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about lately.

Guess it’s time to download my Spotify library and get used to offline playlists.

Chris Wright

About Chris Wright

Co-founder and Director of Climate Tracker. We’ve inspired 8000+ journalists to report on Climate Change. Based in Borneo. Trail Running convert. Learning Python.