Internet access could be threatened by rising sea levels in as little as 15 years

Network cables are plugged in a server room on November 10, 2014 in New York City.

Network cables are plugged in a server room on November 10, 2014 in New York City.
Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images
  • Researchers predict that more than 4,000 miles of internet cable will be permanently flooded in the next 15 years.
  • New York, Miami, and Seattle are most vulnerable to infrastructure damage.
  • Scientists expect AT&T, Inteliquent, and CenturyLink to be hit the hardest because they have the most infrastructure in coastal areas.

More than 4,000 miles of internet cable are projected to go underwater in the next 15 years, and Americans living in New York, Miami, and Seattle are most vulnerable to related infrastructure damage, a team of researchers found.

Scientists at the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who presented their study at a July conference, concluded that more than 1,000 data centers, which store servers and routers, could be damaged due to floods.

Climate change is steadily causing sea levels to rise, which in turn can lead to widespread flooding.

Sea levels are projected to rise by one foot in the next 15 years, which would have a devastating effect on internet infrastructure, the study’s authors wrote. Although internet cables were designed to be water-resistant, they aren’t waterproof.

Among individual service providers, the researchers expect Dallas-based AT&T, Chicago-based Inteliquent, and CenturyLink of Monroe, Louisiana to be at highest risk for damage because they have the most infrastructure in coastal areas.

“We believe that these results highlight a real and present threat to the management and operations of communications systems and that steps should be taken soon to develop plans to address this threat,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study was based on two datasets: projections of sea level rise by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and maps of US internet infrastructure.

A greater rise in sea levels is unlikely to damage the internet infrastructure even further, the study’s authors wrote. A 100-year projection predicts a six-foot rise in sea levels, but only a small increase in the amount of additional infrastructure under water.

Severe storms could cause temporary sea level changes beyond the projected amount, the authors wrote, and efforts to strengthen the communication infrastructure would only be realistic in small areas.

Coastal cities are already feeling the effects of climate change-related sea rises. Miami and Miami Beach, for example, are struggling with serious flooding even when there is no rain. Last year, more than 25% of coastal locations in the US tied or set new records for the number of days of flooding, according to the National Climate Report.

Any future decisions to expand the internet’s infrastructure through data center and cell towers need to keep in mind considerations about the effects of climate change, the researchers said. Some possible solutions include finding ways to harden fiber cables and other infrastructure to make them more resistant to severe weather.

According to the researchers, this was the first study to examine the effects of sea level rise on internet infrastructure. Other scientists have predicted that rising seas will contaminate the freshwater many coastal cities rely on for drinking water, interfere with farming, threaten plant life in coastal areas, damage wildlife habitats, and hurt the tourism and real-estate industries.