Technician installs new fiber optic cables underground after Hurricane Sandy.
Image: AP

If the internet went down, America would devolve into chaos. A new study suggests that’s an increasingly likely possibility as rising sea levels submerge critical infrastructure buried along densely-populated coastlines.

Thousands of miles of fiber optic cables buried underground make up what’s known as the “physical internet.” But as sea levels steadily creep up our coastlines, more and more subterranean infrastructure could become submerged. By 2033, over 4,000 miles of fiber optic cables buried along U.S. coastlines could be underwater, according to a new study presented on Monday at an internet research conference. And unlike the undersea marine cables that send data across continents, fiber optic cables along coastlines generally aren’t waterproof.

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“The results in the paper are startling,” Paul Barford, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of computer science and lead author of the paper, told Earther. “There’s gonna be a great deal of infrastructure that’s gonna be underwater in the next 15 years.”

To reach their findings, the researchers combined the Internet Atlas, an expansive repository of maps of physical internet infrastructure, with federal sea level rise projections across the U.S. done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure. Fiber cables cables are shown in green lines. Blue shaded areas is estimated to be underwater in 15 years due to climate change.
Image: Paul Barford/University of Wisconsin-Madison

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The resulting picture is pretty grim. If more than 4,000 miles of underground fiber optic cables are flooded by rising seas within the next 15 years as predicted by the study’s worst-case scenario, internet reliability for millions of Americans, especially those in coastal cities like New York and Miami, will be impacted.

Powerful storms, which could be more frequent due to climate change, have already hinted at what a flooded internet infrastructure could look like. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy drowned and damaged some of New York City’s underground fiber optic cables. Researchers at the University of Southern California tied Hurricane Sandy’s landfall to a notable spike in internet outages across the country. It took about four days for internet outages return to normal.

Though the world wide web, the most important application of the internet, was actually invented around about the same time as climate scientists James Hansen’s landmark 1988 testimony about global warming, no safeguards were in place to address potential damage caused by sea level rise. The new study underscores the need for deploying solutions to protect our internet infrastructure sooner rather than later.

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“Hopefully, our findings will alert people that we don’t have 100 years to solve this,” Barford told Earther. “We need to start looking at it very soon so that we can take steps to ensure our communication capability in the United States.”

What those steps look like is still unclear. According to Barford, further research is needed to quantify just how much physical damage infrastructure will be subjected to from flooding in high-risk areas. “That will give us targets for where we need to make changes sooner rather than later,” Barford said.