The Internet Is In Danger of Drowning

August 16, 2018

Most internet network cables are installed along the coasts. With rising sea levels, the placement of these cables needs to be moved if the internet is going to survive.


FEMALE_1: So Alison, can you explain what Internet is?

Alison: When you think about the Internet,

Alison: do you picture something like this?

Alison: [MUSIC] This is technically the web.

MALE_1: The internet is a series of tubes.

MALE_2: These are the tubes that are

MALE_2: today's underground superhighways of communication.

Alison: The Internet is the physical stuff

Alison: that makes the web work.

Alison: A series of cables and routers,

Alison: daisy-chain together to form a worldwide network.

Alison: As critical as that network is to

Alison: our lives, it's surprisingly vulnerable.

Alison: New research projects that as sea levels rise,

Alison: the Internet could drown.

Alison: [NOISE].

Alison: From highways to railroads

Alison: and the telegraph to the telephone,

Alison: our infrastructure follows people.

Alison: The Internet followed a similar pattern.

Alison: We laid a lot of the cables

Alison: along existing roads and tunnels,

Alison: which puts much of it right along the coast.

Alison: Researchers at the University of Oregon

Alison: and the University of Wisconsin,

Alison: mapped the physical infrastructure

Alison: of the Internet and then

Alison: overlaid that map with

Alison: the latest projections for sea level rise.

Alison: When you look at their maps you can see that

Alison: just a one foot rise in sea level threatens

Alison: thousands of miles of these cables

Alison: and hundreds of critical connecting points.

Alison: That's enough to wipe out New York City's internet.

Alison: The researchers were surprised

Alison: by how quickly this could all happen,

Alison: in as soon 15 years.

Alison: Cities like New York,

Alison: Miami and Seattle have a lot of

Alison: this critical infrastructure

Alison: and they're right by the coast.

Alison: Because of the way the Internet is physically laid out,

Alison: an outage in New York could

Alison: cause problems around the world.

Alison: The Internet's a network of networks,

Alison: kind of like a subway system

Alison: with local and express lines.

Alison: So, when you send an e-mail,

Alison: that data gets transformed into

Alison: pulses of light and those pulses get

Alison: beamed through cables until they reach

Alison: the recipient at the final destination.

Alison: The light pulses start out on

Alison: what we can think of as the local line,

Alison: from your house to

Alison: the cable company's box down the street.

Alison: That's where all of your neighbors connections joined up,

Alison: and then that line connects to a bigger regional hub.

Alison: These are Internet exchanges.

Alison: Places where the cables from lots of

Alison: different networks and providers physically connect

Alison: to the long distance cables that run for

Alison: hundreds of miles to other Internet exchanges,

Alison: where they connect to other local networks and on and on.

Alison: So, these Internet exchanges,

Alison: are where your email transfers to the express line.

Alison: Think of it like Grand Central Station.

Alison: You can imagine the fallout

Alison: if a connection like that were to fail.

Alison: Without the Internet you can't take money out of

Alison: ATMs or pay for anything with a credit card.

Alison: Grocery stores have trouble checking

Alison: their inventory and ordering more food,

Alison: hospitals can't keep track of

Alison: patient records and Wall Street can't function.

Alison: This doesn't mean we're doomed to a life

Alison: in a watery internet less healthscape.

Alison: In 2012, floods from Hurricane Sandy wiped

Alison: out Internet to neighborhoods in

Alison: Manhattan and the Rockaways,

Alison: and some of those outages lasted for weeks.

Alison: The same thing happened in Miami last year after

Alison: Hurricane Irma. It was a wake-up call.

Alison: New York City formed a Resiliency Council to study how to

Alison: shore up its infrastructure

Alison: against storms and rising seas.

Alison: The city is looking to build in

Alison: redundant conduits and fortify what already exists.

Alison: Miami is taking similar steps.

Alison: Verizon which suffered catastrophic flooding

Alison: at its critical facilities during

Alison: Sandy began replacing copper wiring with

Alison: new more resilient fiber optic cable,

Alison: and started moving equipment from

Alison: basements to higher floors.

Alison: The research team behind the study,

Alison: points out that another solution

Alison: could be to simply re-route Internet traffic,

Alison: by passing flooded points.

Alison: The researchers also say whatever we decide to do,

Alison: we'd better get on it,

Alison: sooner rather than later.

Alison: [MUSIC].