Sea-Level Rise Could Knock Out Miami's Internet Connectivity, Researchers Warn
City of Miami

Sea-Level Rise Could Knock Out Miami's Internet Connectivity, Researchers Warn

Maybe you think you can live just fine in the postapocalyptic future that Americans are creating by pumping carbon emissions into the air. You're OK with the dead trees, the flooded city streets, the extinct alligators. You'll be cool living life in your windowless bunker and traveling across town in a series of air-conditioned tunnels and makeshift fishing boats, as long as you can still stream Netflix, play the virtual-reality sequel to Fortnite, and — let's be real here — stream high-def porn in order to avoid thinking about how humanity has melted the Earth into a wasteland.

Well, in a bit of news that might be the absolute last straw for some climate-change deniers, it turns out sea-level rise might very well knock out Miami's internet infrastructure. According to a new, peer-reviewed study from a group of University of Oregon and University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, sea-level rise threatens the world's buried, internet-carrying cables and wires — and the three American cities most at risk are Seattle, New York, and, of course, Miami.

"The results of our analysis show that climate-change-related sea level incursions could have a devastating impact on Internet communication infrastructure even in the relatively short term," the authors warn. "In particular, we find that 1,186 miles of long-haul fiber conduit and 2,429 miles of metro fiber conduit will be underwater in the next 15 years. Similarly, we find that 1,101 termination points will be surrounded by sea water in the next 15 years. Given the fact that most fiber conduit is underground, we expect the effects of sea level rise could be felt well before the 15-year horizon."

The study adds to the list of terrifying predictions about Miami's future: By 2100, the city could see chronic flooding and multiple feet of ocean rise, 200 "deadly heat" days per year, damage to its major historic sites, a loss of coastal mangroves, and even as many as 2.5 million "climate refugees" fleeing South Florida. Most of those predictions are worst-case scenarios and don't take possible mitigation efforts into account, but virtually zero climate studies predict a rosy future for the city.

The new study is no less terrifying. Though some major, internet-carrying cables are designed to remain submerged forever (such as the huge cable network that spans the world's major oceans), other wires that snake through cities and towns are less waterproof and, the study says, "not designed to be surrounded by or under water." The researchers say their work, which was reportedly presented for the first time at an internet-research conference yesterday, is the premier study on the ways sea-level rise could affect the internet. Researchers took cable-network maps from the Internet Atlas and matched those maps with sea-level-rise inundation predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For many coastal areas, the results do not look good, but Miami sits on a particularly troubling stretch of land:

Sea-Level Rise Could Knock Out Miami's Internet Connectivity, Researchers Warn
University of Oregon/UW-Madison

Within cities, the internet is transmitted across what technicians call "long-haul" and "metro" types of cable: Texas and Florida contain huge swaths of long-haul and metro cable that will be underwater if the seas rise only one foot. In Miami, 5.3 percent of the city's long-haul cables (62 miles) and 13.27 percent of the city's metro cables (149 miles) are at risk of being submerged in coming years. (The authors note that, though the number of long-haul miles affected is smaller than the number of metro miles, long-haul cables tend to be more important to a city's information-technology infrastructure.)

In terms of internet connection "nodes," Miami also ranked among the most threatened cities in every category. They include "point-of-presence" sites (POP), where users' cables connect to internet service providers (ISPs); internet data centers; long-distance "interexchange points" (IXPs), which connect major internet companies; and "landing stations," where huge submarine cables connect across countries and continents.

Sea-Level Rise Could Knock Out Miami's Internet Connectivity, Researchers Warn
University of Oregon/UW-Madison

Researchers also warn that damage to internet cables might come soon. If cities don't upgrade their infrastructure to protect against flooding by around 2033, places including South Florida could begin to see widespread, regular internet outages. Hurricane Irma caused huge internet issues last September, for example.

The researchers also ranked each ISP by vulnerability to the rising ocean. The study says that because CenturyLink, Inteliquent, and AT&T own the largest internet networks in America, those companies naturally make up the three most "at-risk" ISPs. (Many of the companies told NPR yesterday that they are already taking sea-level rise into account.)

"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 researchers warn.

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