In the next 15 years, thousands of miles of fiber optic cables will be flooded with rising ocean waters. She knew that sea levels have been rising steadily for the past hundred years as Earth's climate has warmed, and that's already affecting many coastal areas. Initially, it was thought that 50 years would be enough to plan for it, but Barford says we don't have so many years at our disposal. The report, presented at a meeting of internet network researchers in Montreal, is among the first to reveal the damage a changing climate will cause for the network of cables and data centres that underpins so much of modern life.
Coastal cities, such as NY and Miami are most susceptible, but the potential for disruption could be global.
The study, which only considered U.S. infrastructure, 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.
At a particular risk are fiber optic cables buried underground, which - unlike submarine cables - are not designed for prolonged periods of submersion.
Behind every tweet, meme, and bank transaction is a vast network of fiber optic cables and other infrastructure that makes up the "physical internet".
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When they laid their atlas over maps of projected sea level rise, they were surprised at what they found. In a study published Monday, scientists examined the vulnerability of communication infrastructure to human-driven sea level rise. Service disruptions during catastrophic storm surges and flooding that accompanied hurricanes Sandy and Katrina hinted at the problems to come, Barford and Durairajan note. "We don't have 50 years", he said.
Conduits at most risk are already close to sea level.
However the study admits that it is now very hard to project the impact of countermeasures, such as sea walls, but "our results suggest the urgency of developing mitigation strategies and alternative infrastructure deployments". "We can probably buy a little time, but in the long run it's just not going to be effective", he said.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of OR have taken a look at the risk factors of climate change and how it may impact the internet and their findings are unsettling.
"A tremendous amount of internet infrastructure will either be underwater or surrounded by water in coastal areas in the next 15 years", said Barford. That article also outlines a variety of climate change-related risks but does not mention sea level rise specifically. The findings of the study, argues the Wisconsin computer scientist, serve notice to industry and government.
"We live in a world designed for an environment that no longer exists", says Rich Sorkin, the co-founder of Jupiter Intelligence, a company that models climate-induced risk.