According to Paul Barford, the study's senior author and a professor of computer science at UWM, the earlier estimation was that the Internet cables would get affected in the next 50 years. He said perhaps one of the most shocking findings of his research was how soon this all could happen.
Barford said that when embarking on the study, the group expected to be able to offer the industry "50 years to plan for it".
To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study of the effects of climate change-related sea level rise on Internet infrastructure. It is predicted that over 1,100 traffic hubs would be surrounded by water and buried fiber optic conduit spread across more than 4,000 miles would be under water by the end of 2033. Large portions of the physical Internet are spread across major coastal cities, including New York, Miami and Seattle - all cities threatened by rising seas. The cities most prone to getting their Internet cables flooded are New York, Miami and Seattle Metropolitan areas.
The study, which only considered United States 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.
Buried fibre optic wiring is created to be water-resistant but unlike the marine cables that carry data from continent to continent under the ocean, they are not waterproof and can be damaged.
Barford is a leading expert on the "physical internet", the buried fiber optic cables, data centers, traffic exchanges, and termination points that are the nerve centers, arteries, and hubs of the global information network.
Ocean levels will rise inexorably because heat-trapping industrial gases already emitted will linger in the atmosphere, melting more ice, it said. In a study published Monday, scientists examined the vulnerability of communication infrastructure to human-driven sea level rise. Hints of the problems to come, says Barford, can be seen in the catastrophic storm surges and flooding that accompanied hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
Miller and his colleagues are now working on a new set of Washington state-specific sea level rise projections that they hope will be able to predict local effects more accurately. Large parts of internet infrastructure soon "will be underwater, unless they're moved back pretty quickly".
"Given the fact that most fibre conduit is underground, we expect the effects of sea level rise could be felt well before the 15-year horizon", says the study. Fiber optic cables laid 20-25 years ago, when it was not yet clear what the implications of climate change. "But keeping the sea at bay is hard".
"This is a wake-up call".
"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.
According to a report by NPR, communications giants like AT&T and Verizon are aware of the issue and are already deploying systems that can survive the rising tide - something that Barford says will have to become the rule in this wetter new world, not the exception.