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Rising Sea Levels Put Submarine Fibre Optic Cables At Risk – No Really

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018 (8:25 am) - Score 1,426
submarine fibre optic cornwall

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has warned that rising sea levels will soon threaten the land-based stations for undersea fibre optic cables, as well as data centres and other vital international telecoms infrastructure situated in or around low lying coastal areas.

The report – ‘Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure‘ – is focused on the USA but its conclusions have relevance to similar connectivity in the UK. As above, the problem isn’t so much the undersea cables themselves as their landing stations and buried fibre on the coast. “Standard internet infrastructure deployments are designed to be weather and water resistant, they are not designed to be surrounded by or under water,” said the report.

According to the research, some 4,067 miles worth of fibre optic conduit will be under water and 1,101 nodes (e.g. points of presence and co-location centres) will be “surrounded by water in the next 15 years“. The full report also assessed these risks in terms of the amount and type of infrastructure that will be under water in different time intervals over the next 100 years.

Research Conclusion

We … find New York, Miami and Seattle to be the most vulnerable areas, and that large service providers including CenturyLink, Intelliquent and AT&T have the most infrastructure risk. We believe that these results highlight a real and present threat to the management and operations of communications systems and that steps should be taken soon to develop plans to address this threat.

To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study of the effects of climate change-related sea level rise on Internet infrastructure. However, anecdotal evidence for impact of global warming on communication infrastructure can be found in the popular press.

For example, Bogle describes shutdown of communication systems due to air conditioning failures caused by extreme heat (here). That article also outlines a variety of climate change-related risks but does not mention sea level rise specifically.

The research states that water, humidity and ice have long been recognized as threats to fibre optic strands and conduit. Water-related threats include (i) signal attenuation due to water molecules embedding in fibre micro-cracks, (ii) corrosion damage to connectors, (iii) signal loss in optical-electrical-optical connections, and (iv) fibre breakage due to freezing. Cable construction techniques (e.g. cladding and hydrophobic gels) along with careful deployments enable fibre to function for decades, albeit only under “normal/expected environmental conditions“.

However the study admits that it is currently very difficult to project the impact of countermeasures, such as sea walls, but “our results suggest the urgency of developing mitigation strategies and alternative infrastructure deployments.” Now might be a good time for the major international cable companies and national telecoms / broadband ISP giants to assess the risk while there’s still time to adapt. Credits to The Register for spotting.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
1 Response
  1. Avatar un4h731x0rp3r0m

    If water levels are to rise as much as some environmentalist and climate change/global warming reports often say, i have only one question….

    Rather than worry about anything we have built (which is what these reports often go on about) being underwater shouldn’t we all first worry about drowning or learning how to grow gills and breath under water first? If it is as bad as some say we will not have any buildings to sit in to use the internet never mind worrying about if it is working or not.

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