It’s no secret that the network of cables that forms the physical infrastructure of the Internet is potentially vulnerable to attacks, accidents and sabotage.
In 2008, off Alexandria, Egypt, the anchor of a ship severed two major submarine cables, the FLAG and the SeaMeWe-4: the consequences were felt in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, as far as Pakistan and India, where 60 million people were no longer able to connect to the Internet.
The incident prompted some of the major telecommunications operators to think about alternative routes and in the following years various other cables, submarine and non-submarine, were laid.
But the whole system is still very fragile and, as modern societies become increasingly dependent on Internet connectivity, this is cause for concern for both businessmen and politicians; so much so that the former head of GHCQ (the British equivalent to the NSA), Robert Hannigan, recently warned of the risk of Russia cutting deep-sea communications cables to disrupt Western economies.
Neither Hannigan nor other former and current spies could do much to fight another threat: climate change, or, better said, one of climate change effects: rising sea levels.
According to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon by the year 2033 more than 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic conduit in the United States will be underwater and more than 1,100 traffic hubs will be surrounded by water. Seattle, Miami and New York are the three cities at most risk of internet disruptions.
Researchers also tried to quantify the impact on individual service provider infrastructures and found that CenturyLink, Inteliquent, and AT&T are those most likely to be affected.
“Our analysis is conservative in that we only looked at the static dataset of sea level rise and then overlapped that over the infrastructure to get an idea of risk,” the study’s lead author, Ramakrishnan Durairajan said in a statement. “Sea level rise can have other factors — a tsunami, a hurricane, coastal subduction zone earthquakes — all of which could provide additional stresses that could be catastrophic to infrastructure already at risk.”
Clearly, in danger are not submarine cables, which are waterproof, but those at the landing points which cannot boast the same levels of resistance.
The study, which only evaluated risk to infrastructure in the United States, was presented in mid-July at a meeting of researchers from the Association for Computing Machinery, the Internet Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. To reach their conclusions, the authors took National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maps of projected sea level rise and analyzed fiber maps against them.
They did not suggest solutions or countermeasures, the impact of which could be hard to estimate right now anyway, but wanted to stimulate a sense of urgency, as time seems to be running out faster than expected.
“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” the study’s senior author Paul Barford said (Barford is UW–Madison professor of computer science and Durairajan, now at Oregon University, was one of his students).
“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.”
While the 7-page-long report falls somehow short of precisely describing the concrete effects of this vulnerability on Internet access in the country, some hints could come from the service disruptions caused by the flooding that accompanied hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
Or from the extended outages which took place last year in the aftermath of hurricane Irma.
It doesn’t have to be that tragic, for sure: but some serious problems could arise if authorities don’t take action and 15 years from now is not such a long period of time.