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How many gigabytes of data do you consume every month? In an era where accessing websites, downloading files and scrolling through social media feeds is second nature, we rarely consider how much data we are consuming, or its environmental cost. Researchers at Imperial College London, however, found that downloading just one gigabyte of data requires 200 litres of water. Water is needed to cool the massive data servers that search engines and websites, such as Amazon and Google, use to power their internet services. These facilities also consume electricity at an astonishing rate, with data centres accounting for 2% of the US’ annual power consumption. Meanwhile, data centres in China use as much electricity as Hungary and Greece combined

There are nearly 3 million data centres in the US alone, and a 2014 report from the US Department of Energy found that together, these data centres consume 165 billion gallons of water annually. To put this in context, the World Health Organization estimates that adults need roughly 5 gallons of water a day to meet basic health and hygiene standards. This means that the annual water usage by data centres in the US could support over 90 million people’s basic water requirements for one year. 

Data centres require significant amounts of water due to a process known as “evaporative cooling.” In this process, water is used to cool the air around the server’s processing units. In the past, data centres used air conditioners, but this approach was energy intensive and expensive to operate. Otto Van Geet, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, observed the trade off between water and electricity usage, commenting,  “if the water consumption goes down, energy consumption goes up and vice versa.”

Emma Weisbord, an officer at the International Water association, noted that the water required to support cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin also “cannot be ignored.” One estimate found that Bitcoin’s annual energy consumption exceeded that of countries like Switzerland and Kuwait. Cooling and powering cryptocurrency servers is a water-intensive process, with Bitcoin alone requiring up to 411 billion gallons of water per year. 

You might also like: Are Cryptocurrencies Harming the Environment?

Much of this water is diverted from water scarce communities, particularly in the American South-West. Research from the Illinois Institute of Technology found that data centres in the US are often established in small rural towns, many of which already suffer from water scarcity. These small towns have to make trade-offs between the economic development data centres generate and long-term water access. “With climate change, we are expected to have more prolonged droughts,” said Venki Uddameri, director of the water resources center at Texas Tech University. “These kinds of water-intensive operations add to the local stress.” 

In response to these concerns, some internet companies have tried to improve their water efficiency. For example, Google is experimenting with using reclaimed wastewater and recycling water through its cooling systems multiple times. In 2013, Facebook opened a data centre in the Arctic Circle in Sweden to attempt to make use of naturally cooler temperatures. Similarly, Microsoft has been testing underwater data centres since 2016 to reduce the cost of cooling, as well as reach large populations located in coastal cities. 

In 2021 annual spending on data centres is expected to top USD$200 billion globally, a 6.2% increase from 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a 70% increase in internet usage, with Facebook alone recording a 27% increase in usage. Our internet consumption is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and the number of internet servers required to support our online presence will grow in tandem. 

Just writing this article required around twenty litres of water, and for every hour that you browse the internet reading similar pieces, you use about five. If you want to decrease your online environmental impact, try unsubscribing from unnecessary emails, limiting online movie streaming, reducing the amount of information you store in cloud systems, and choosing green web hosts. To truly limit the internet’s environmental cost, however, consumers will need to continue to demand accountability and ingenuity from the digital giants that profit from our reliance on the internet. 

A collaborative research program, ICARUS, aims to develop an ‘internet of animals’ powered by an antenna aboard the International Space Station (ISS) that will track and monitor the movement of thousands of animals on earth. 

In 2018, Russian astronauts installed a large antenna onboard the ISS. From over 380km above the Earth, the antenna picks up signals from tiny transmitters attached to more than 800 species of animals, including those in East Asia, Australia, Mexico, West Africa, South America, Siberia and the US. The tracking system was finally switched on in March after initial setbacks and is poised to be fully operational by the end of the year.  

The joint project, ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), is a collaboration between the Max Planck Society, Russian space agency Roskomos and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). It aims to analyse global movement and migration patterns of thousands of animals in real time, to shed light on the state of biodiversity on our planet. 

“The sensors allow animals to be our eyes and ears and noses in the world, and we are linking it all together,” said Dr. Martin Wikelski, the project manager of ICARUS and director of migration research at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour. 

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ICARUS will radically transform current animal tracking efforts. It will monitor animals over a much larger area than was previously possible. The system will also collect additional data such as information on the animal’s physiology and surrounding environment. Further, the new solar-powered biologgers attached to animals will be lighter, weighing less than three grams and also cheaper to operate than existing tags.  

The applications of ICARUS are wide-ranging. For instance, the system will allow scientists to monitor flocks of migrating birds over long distances rather than only one or two birds at a time. The new transmitters can also be attached to much smaller animals including insects. 

“It is a new era of discovery…we will discover new migration paths, habitat requirements, things about species behavior that we didn’t even think about. That discovery will bring about all sorts of new questions,” according to Walter Jetz, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, who is working with the project. 

The global movements and migrations of animals will also help researchers understand environmental changes taking place on Earth. Animals respond to changes in their environment and natural catastrophes before humans notice them. “We think something smells wrong to them and there is static in the air so they move into wooded areas where they have shelter,” Dr Wikelski said. 

The Max Planck Institute hopes that these animal sensors will enable researchers to better monitor the occurrence of natural catastrophes, spread of infectious diseases and changes in the climate. “With skin temperature we can see in the ducks in China whether the next avian influenza is starting,” he added. 

From a conservation perspective, ICARUS will provide more precise location estimates of animals. The biologgers can also store up to 500 megabytes, enough to provide data on an animal’s entire lifetime, which can simply be downloaded from a computer or a smartphone.

One of the goals of the project, Dr. Wikelski says, is to help conservationists respond quickly to a changing world. ICARUS will use the internet to help researchers track vulnerable animals threatened by poaching and habitat loss. For instance, scientists in the Galapagos already have plans to use ICARUS to track the migration patterns of baby tortoises to inform their conservation efforts

ICARUS will be made available to researchers around the world. The data could also be coupled with other types of information such as the eBird and CITES databases to develop more robust findings. In addition, there are plans to allow the public to track tagged migratory animals via an app on a smartphone. “These animals are providing really important information, maybe for survival of humankind…we’ll get a lot of things from ICARUS we can’t get any other way, it’s exciting,” Dr Wikelski said. 

International treaties such as The Paris Agreement commits governments to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meeting this challenge demands a rethinking and restructuring of the world’s energy consumption, which demands a review of the functioning of each sector of activity. Digital technology- including the internet- is one such sector that is oft-overlooked by the public and policy makers, but the environmental harm linked to this sector demands attention as urgent as that which is given to others, which calls for a ‘digital sobriety’ approach.

The Digital Carbon Footprint

Digital technologies are responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, a figure expected to double by 2025 and the energy required for this sector is increasing by 8% a year. Watching a half-hour show online leads to 1.6kgs of carbon emissions. 

The Internet poses a threat to climate change, however it is extremely hard to regulate, as so many people use it for so many different things. One of the most energy-intensive of the Internet is video. Ten hours of high-quality video comprises more data than all of the English articles on Wikipedia in text format. Online videos represented 80% of global data flows in 2018, with the remaining 20% representing websites, data, video games, etc. Categories of these online videos include streaming, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc, ‘Tubes’, such as Youtube, and social networks. 

This variety of categories illustrates how difficult it is to regulate video usage as there are multiple factors that need to be considered for each category. The increase in video consumption results in massive amounts of data being stored, damaging the environment further and going against the aims of the Paris Agreement.  

How to reduce internet pollution?

Environmental experts from Paris created a think tank called “The Shift Project,” which proposes the idea of ‘digital sobriety’. Digital sobriety promotes using the Internet and technology in a more mindful and responsible way as opposed to cutting it out entirely; the think tank acknowledges the implausibility of this, adding that it ignores the positive contributions of digital technologies. 

Earth.org the internet is harming the environment
A graph showing the digital share of greenhouse gas emissions under a ‘digital sobriety’ scenario and a scenario without ‘digital sobriety’ (Source: The Shift Project)

Maxime Efoui-Hess, a member of the think tank, says, “The ‘good effects’ of digital technologies, in terms of energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions, are constantly neutralised at global scale by the fact that we use these technologies without thinking about the right way to do it.” 

He discusses the need  to use technology efficiently, “We cannot deny how much the Internet has become a part of our daily lives, but it is about becoming aware of how to use technology more sustainably.”

The think tank believes that humanity is the victim of ‘addictive design,’ a concept in which websites employ mechanisms such as ‘autoplay’ and the ‘recommended section’ of streaming sites to maximise the amount of time spent by a user on the platform. 

It allows for a continuous flow of video rather than a timed usage, which boosts the consumption of a large amount of content and generates an increase in the volumes of associated data. For example, the ‘autoplay’ functionality on Netflix encourages the user to watch more episodes than they would have intended, as there is little time to opt out before the next episode starts playing. Consumers need to be aware of how website design can influence them to spend more time online than is necessary. 

The Shift Project asserts that ‘regulation by content’ is needed, which ‘would aim at redimensioning the design of platforms to orient behaviours to a more precise selection of the content consumed. It would reduce the volume of content consumed and be more consistent with the user’s needs’. 

This approach makes it possible to act directly on the product consumed- video content- and therefore adapt regulatory tools to its specific characteristics. It would allow users to take into account the processes at the source of the consumption of data in order to act on them. 

China is one country attempting to crack down on over usage of the internet, albeit not with the intention of curbing emissions. In November 2019, the nation announced that it would impose curfews on minors playing video games to combat what it says is an addiction ‘harming the physical and mental health of minors’. Gamers under 18 are now barred from playing online games between 10pm and 8am and during the week, minors are allowed to play for 90 minutes a day, an allotment that extends to three hours on weekends and public holidays. While it is too early to ascertain if this is a beneficial move, it may encourage game makers, and website designers broadly, to reduce their use of addictive design mechanisms. 

However, no broad legislative action has been taken as most laws and political discussion surrounding the Internet concern data protection. There are difficulties in regulating content on the internet, as this would require an examination on the implications in terms of freedom of expression and the accessibility of contents, which raises the question of Net Neutrality. 

While there are certainly challenges in reducing the carbon footprint of digital technologies, especially when considering the ethical aspects, as well as the practical aspects regarding increasing global access to the internet and an increasing population, there needs to be more consideration of how these technologies are impacting on the planet. Regulations need to be implemented on a policy level that balances mitigation of environmental harm and people’s right to information and freedom of speech. 

Imagine that the internet is suspended for days; no email, no social media, no online banking, and no streaming services. Sea-level rise caused by climate change could make the likelihood of a massive internet outage more likely.

 —

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.

How does sea level rise cause internet outage?

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.” 

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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.

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