Global internet connectivity is threatened by climate catastrophes

The flow of digital information through fiber optic cables on the sea floor could be affected by climate change.

That’s according to new research published in the journal Earth-Science Reviews by scientists from the UK’s National Oceanography Center and the University of Central Florida. They found that ocean and near-shore disruptions caused by extreme weather events have exposed “hot spots” along the transglobal cable network, increasing the risk of Internet outages.

The damage from such outages could be enormous for governments, the private sector, and non-profit organizations whose operations depend on the secure flow of digital information.

For example, the researchers wrote that strengthening tropical cyclones in the North Pacific are straining undersea cables off the coast of Taiwan, whose sovereignty is under threat as China claims territorial rights over the island.

And in strategically important polar regions, “melting glacier and sea ice are changing ocean conditions fundamentally and faster than in many other places on earth,” the researchers found.

“Our analysis clearly emphasizes the need to carefully plan cable routes and landing station locations while considering a range of local hazards and their impact on climate change,” says co-author Thomas Wahl, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and UCF Construction Engineering said in a press release.

The findings come from the analysis of peer-reviewed datasets on seabed cable infrastructure and their vulnerability to climate change. Other collaborators on the study are the US Geological Survey, the University of Southampton, the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and the International Cable Protection Committee.

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“We find that ocean conditions have a high probability of changing on a global scale as a result of climate change, but the feedbacks and links between climate change, natural processes and human activities are often complicated, resulting in a high degree of geographic variability,” wrote Researchers.

Such risks are particularly amplified by sea-level rise, the authors say, as swelling oceans increase hazard severity, create new hazards, and shift hazard risk to new areas.

At the same time, the global undersea cable network is being further expanded. Real-time information from TeleGeography reveals a vast network of transatlantic and transpacific lines from the United States to Europe and Asia. Other continents, such as South America and Africa, are surrounded by undersea cables that connect to shores at thousands of connection points.

While natural disasters that damage submarine cables “are fewer in number than those associated with human activities,” such as bottom fishing or ship anchor strikes, cases of cable damage from natural hazards “can simultaneously damage multiple cable systems over large areas and isolate entire regions,” the authors write .

Nicole Starosielski, associate professor of media, culture and communications at New York University and author of The Undersea Network, has noted that today’s undersea cables are being built and laid with greater attention to disaster risk. But many cable stations, where submarine cables terminate after coming ashore, “were built before climate change was considered in the minds of builders,” she wrote on Canadian website Open Canada.

In 2021, the International Cable Protection Committee, made up of industry and government representatives, published a “Best Practices” document on protecting and promoting the resilience of undersea telecommunications cables. Recommendations included partitioning the cable infrastructure to provide redundancy and backup measures in the event of extreme events.

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The committee also jointly released a report with the United Nations Environment Program in 2009, which said rising seas could exacerbate erosion and increase the risk of flooding of coastal cable facilities on the coast.

In hurricane and typhoon zones, severe storms “will not only attack the coast, but will also affect the stability of the seabed of the continental shelf through the formation of erosive currents and waves,” the report said. Such actions could subject cables to increased abrasion or suspensions above the seabed, as well as trigger submarine landslides and increased turbidity.

Mike Clare, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the National Oceanography Center, said it’s important for scientists and engineers to assess new potential disturbances that climate change could create.

“Our reliance on cables no wider than a garden hose surprises many who view satellites as the primary means of communication,” Clare said in a press release. “But satellites just don’t have the bandwidth to support modern digital systems. The ‘cloud’ is not in the sky – it is under the sea.”

E&E News reprinted with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.