Climate Change Could Take Out Key Data Centers and Internet Infrastructure, Researchers Warn

Written by Joe Kozlowicz on Wednesday, July 18th 2018 — Categories: Data Center Design, Green Data Center

Researchers Warn to Mitigate and Migrate Inland

While the data center industry continues to get greener, it also continues to grow. Alongside that growth comes significant CO2 emissions, which are widely acknowledged by the scientific community as a primary contributor to global climate change. As the Earth warms and sea levels rise, data centers near the coast could in fact end up underwater – and vital connectivity infrastructure is likely to be lost as well.

That’s the conclusion drawn by University of Madison-Wisconsin and University of Oregon researchers in a new study that takes a look at the effects of climate change on internet infrastructure. The study even goes so far as to suggest that mitigation and migration action should begin immediately in order to avoid catastrophic effects on the way we connect to the internet.


How Sea Level Rise Will Sink Internet Connectivity

The researchers compared the Internet Atlas, which maps physical components of the web, and Sea Level Rise Inundation data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As you might suspect, much of our critical internet infrastructure is located near the coasts. There are two key reasons for this: population centers like New York City are situated on the coast and trans-oceanic cabling must terminate in interconnection centers.

The study discovered nearly 1,200 miles of long-haul fiber conduit and just under 2,500 miles of metro fiber that will be underwater within the next 15 years, should NOAA predictions prove accurate. Over 1,100 termination points will also be surrounded by seawater in that timeframe.

The timeline could accelerate, too: study authors pointed out that because many conduits are located underground, they could be flooded before seawater reaches the land above. They also admitted that increased storm activity could damage infrastructure before sea levels rise to its geographic location. And of course, sea levels could rise faster than predicted as well, especially as many local, state, and national governments miss their climate change targets and the world as a whole fails to curb emissions.

The study found that New York / New Jersey, Miami, Houston, and Seattle-based interconnection sites and fiber lines are at especially high risk; while specific fiber providers CenturyLink, AT&T, and Intelliquent face the largest potential damage to their networks.

sea level rise overlaid with internet connectivity infrastructure from a recent studySea level rise overlaid with at-risk internet infrastructure, from the study Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure by Ramakrishnan Durairajan , Carol Barford , Paul Barford of University of Oregon & University of Wisconsin - Madison

But wait — when it rains very hard, the internet doesn’t go down. Isn’t this infrastructure built to withstand the elements?

While that’s true of your typical weather, your typical fiber conduit can not withstand total submersion for very long (with the exception of deepsea underwater cables, which are heavily engineered to withstand water and pressure for many years.)

The study did not look at cascading effects that the loss of this infrastructure would have on inland internet infrastructure; nor how the loss of this connectivity would impact local populations and businesses. Needless to say, it would be chaotic.


What Can Be Done?

The interconnection points, POPs, colocation providers, and fiber infrastructure at risk in this study are not going to pick up and move overnight. That’s an outrageously expensive proposition; plus the populations they serve require that connectivity.

Rather, the study suggests beginning mitigation by planning backup and alternate connectivity routes to reduce the overall impact coastal infrastructure failure, alongside hardening and rebuilding critical infrastructure within the flooding zone to withstand the creeping tides. Hardening measures could include seawalls, enclosures for submarine landing points, and enabling risk-aware and reliable routing.

Beyond weather resistance, the onus is placed on ISPs and data service providers to consider climate change in their business planning. In other words, critical infrastructure should be moved inland or designed with sea level rise and increased natural disaster severity in mind. Edge facilities and interconnection sites in Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets will likely grow in importance as these issues spread throughout the collective industry consciousness.

Finally, the data center and telecom industries must consider climate change throughout their business practices – designing energy efficient operations and facilities, purchasing renewable energy where possible, and attempting in every way to curb their environmental impact. While the sea level rise described in the study may be impossible to avoid at this point, future turmoil can be mitigated through smart business practices today.