Biden and the Underseas Cable Underworld

Massive internet cables may already be below water—but they can still drown.

By Nitshia Pahwa
December 30, 2020

This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement.

The internet is quite literally in deep trouble, with a potential apocalypse approaching more imminently than you may realize.

In about 15 years, the waters that are rising due to the effects of climate change could drown the more than 4,000 miles of underseas fiber optic cables that transmit the internet connections of everyone who lives in the U.S. and is hooked to the grid. You read that correctly: The already-underseas cables will drown. How does something drown if it’s already surviving (occasional shark attack notwithstanding) below water? Well, the cables themselves connect with buildings above sea level—often just barely above it—at both ends in order to bring these transmissions to land. If, and when, rising seas submerge the cable ends themselves, the networks will become unusable, with major consequences for national and international communication and security. According to CNN, as of 2019 there are more than 380 such cables in operation—and as Rhett Butler, a University of Hawaii professor who’s worked on both extreme weather monitoring and underseas cable reuse and redevelopment efforts for decades, told me, these cables carry at least 95 percent of internet traffic. As you can see in this map from the World Economic Forum, these cables cover an astounding portion of Earth, crisscrossing throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and encircling the coasts of South America and Africa.

So, it’s a big deal, and if action isn’t taken on both a domestic and global scale, the worst-case scenarios are mind-boggling. Think back to what happened in New York and New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy: Their underground internet infrastructure was disrupted by the storm surges, leading to massive outages and overreliance on smaller aboveground networks without the same capacity. There are global implications as well: International connections could vanish, leaving far more constricted, insular networks than before. Few other connection sources—nope, not even 5G—can make up for that lost, wide-spanning capacity. As Nicole Starosielski, an NYU professor and scholar of undersea networks, told me over email, if this comes to pass, “there will be an internet largely confined to continents, with only some networks able to achieve satellite backup.” No other alternative infrastructure, whether satellite or aboveground connection, “would have the same advantages of current systems” and carry the same capacity. Many of these cables, which were built in the 1990s without climate change in mind, could be doomed. And some nations’ entire economic lifelines could be screwed with them, like in the Pacific Islands, where countries receive ample foreign investment for cable development. Climate disaster could take away both their connection and a crucial source of income. And, ironically enough, these cables are used to help gather data on climate impacts, so climate change could mess up the very tools we need to monitor the impact of climate change.

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