Imagine that the internet is suspended for days; no email, no social media, no online banking, and no streaming services. Climate change could turn this into a reality.

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Sea-level rise might cause massive internet outages that could disrupt modern life and inflict major damage on the global economy in the next decade.

According to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon, more than 6500 kilometers of buried fiber optic conduit in the United States will be underwater due to sea-level rise in less than 15 years. More than 1,100 traffic hubs will be inundated in major cities like Seattle, Miami, and New York. Thousands of companies and millions of people across the world will be affected because of the subsequent internet blackout.

“The impacts (of infrastructure damage in US coastal cities) could ripple out and potentially disrupt global communications,” says the study’s lead author Ramakrishnan Durairajan.

Internet infrastructures in the US have already faced the wrath of climate change induced extreme weather events. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, millions of residents in the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut faced a complete internet blackout for days. Several central offices of major Internet Service Provider (ISP) Verizon in lower Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island City were flooded.

The new research — the first-ever study to look at the impact of climate change on the internet — warns that communication infrastructures in the US are much more vulnerable than previously imagined.

“Our analysis is conservative in that we only looked at the static dataset of sea-level rise and then overlapped that over the infrastructure to get an idea of risk,” Durairajan says. “Sea-level rise can have other factors — a tsunami, a hurricane, coastal subduction zone earthquakes — all of which could provide additional stresses that could be catastrophic to infrastructure already at risk.” 

Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure. Anything in the blue shade is estimated to be underwater in 15 years.

The buried fiber optic cables, data centers, traffic exchanges, and termination points are the nerve centers and arteries of the vast global information network. They are not waterproof like marine cables that ferry data under the ocean. When sea-levels rise, these conduits and cable landing points will be permanently submerged. Seawater will corrode connectors and optical transponders of the cables. Major ISPs like CenturyLink, Inteliquent, and AT&T will be affected.

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” says the study’s senior author Professor Paul Barford. “That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

Researchers estimate that over 771 Points of Presence (PoPs) — the infrastructure that allows remote users to connect to the internet — and 235 data centres will be affected when sea levels rise by one foot in 2030. As many as 780 PoPs and 242 data centres will be submerged by 2075 when the seawater rise by four feet. 

An internet outage due to sea-level rise even for a brief period will create significant detrimental impacts on economic activity around the world. A report from Brookings that examined the economic effects of 81 internet shutdowns that took place in the span of a year estimates that internet blackout cost a minimum of $2.4 billion in GDP, globally. The country most economically harmed by internet shutdowns was India—by a long shot—which lost out on nearly $1 billion in GDP. The bill for Saudi Arabia’s blackouts came to $465 million, Morocco’s was $320 million, and Iraq’s amounted to $209 million.