Data centres and fibre optic cables at risk from rising sea levels

In BICSI Bytes by

Climate change researchers have warned recently that rising sea levels are set to damage fibre optic cables, submerge network points of presence (PoPs) and surround data centres.


In a study analysing the effects of climate change on Internet infrastructure in the US, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon found that a significant amount of digital infrastructure will be impacted over the coming years, and cautioned that mitigation planning should begin immediately.

The study, entitled ‘Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure’, combined data from the Internet Atlas – a global map of the Internet’s physical components – and projections of sea level changes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


The analysis is conservative since it doesn’t consider the threat of severe storms that would cause temporary sea level incursions beyond the predicted average.

At a particular risk are fibre optic cables buried underground, which – unlike submarine cables – are not designed for prolonged periods of submersion.


According to the study, in 15 years 1,908 km of long-haul fibre and 3,909 km of metro fibre will be underwater, while 1,101 termination points will be surrounded by the sea, adding: “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. Additionally, in 2030, about 771 PoPs, 235 data centres, 53 landing stations, 42 IXPs will be affected by a 30 cm rise in sea level. Future deployments of Internet infrastructure (including colocation and data centres, conduits, cell towers, etc.) will need to consider the impact of climate change.”


One of the report authors, Paul Barford commented: “Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later. That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years. This is a wake-up call. We need to be thinking about how to address this issue. The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure. But keeping the sea at bay is hard. We can probably buy a little time, but in the long run it’s just not going to be effective.”


Whether any immediate action will be taken remains unclear, with the US Federal government disputing climate change science and rolling back the associated regulations.