The dense network of cables that make up the Internet is likely to be inundated with saltwater as sea levels rise, a new analysis suggests, putting thousands of miles of critical infrastructure along U.S. coastlines underwater in the next 15 years.
"It is actually the wires and the hardware that make the Internet run," explains Ramakrishnan Durairajan, a computer scientist at the University of Oregon and an author of the research. The analysis estimates under the most severe model for sea level rise that more than 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable along U.S. coastlines will be underwater by the early 2030s.
The Internet is particularly susceptible to flooding because data travels through underground cables buried along roadways and through tunnels. While the massive deep sea cables that carry data under the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are designed to be permanently underwater, other infrastructure such as copper wiring and power stations are not.
If thousands of miles of cable were flooded because sea level rise, it could potentially impact Internet reliability for millions of Americans in major cities. In fact, higher temperatures and more powerful storms, both of which are more likely as the climate changes, have already affected Internet hardware.
In 2015, a heat wave in Australia fried air conditioners at a key data center, cutting off a major company's Internet service for hours. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy knocked out some Internet in New York City when floodwaters cut off power and drowned the underground cables that carry data. At the time, Verizon's executive director of operations told The Verge that there had been a "catastrophic failure."