By Joan Meiners, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | Posted August 15, 2018 at 05:45 AM | Updated August 15, 2018 at 10:10 AM
As our reliance on internet access for every aspect of modern life increases, new research suggests that sea level rise will threaten the underground cables that bring it to our fingertips, as soon as 15 years from now in some cities.
Scientists believe this is what the Louisiana coast may look like by 2100 due to sea level rise. (NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune graphic)
Sea level rise will threaten huge sections of buried internet infrastructure in major coastal cities including Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Seattle and New Orleans, according to findings by scientists from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin. The researchers spent years mapping out internet infrastructure, collecting information that’s not often shared with the public due to security concerns, to create what they call an Internet Atlas. They then overlaid this map with predicted models of sea level rise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Although they set out to determine how sea level rise would overwhelm internet infrastructure over the next 100 years, they found that most of the anticipated damage would take only 15 years.
High winds and heavy surf pounded the back-bay sections of Stone Harbor and North Wildwood, Friday March 02, 2018. (Dale Gerhard / Press of Atlantic City)
Paul Barford, senior author on the study and a professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, called the internet the most complex infrastructure ever designed by humans.
“It gives us the capability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time in the world,” Barford said. “But it’s not magic. We have to have something physical that carries the message between points.”
This physical, non-magic infrastructure is composed of cables and nodes. Cables, or “fiber conduit,” usually run underground to connect nodes, which are where the cables surface to amplify or redirect signals. Barford and colleagues concluded that more than 4,000 miles of conduit fiber and about 1,100 nodes will be claimed nationwide by sea level rise in the next 15 years.
A slice of an underground BellSouth telephone cable full of colored wires capable of servicing 1,200 homes. New lines like this were installed through flood-devasted areas of the city in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Chris Granger, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Cut the red or the blue wire? The cabling situation.
Kim Jovanovich, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of New Orleans and a longtime contractor in undersea cable installation for the Navy, the Port of New Orleans and in the Arctic, said advances in cable engineering have solved the problem of keeping water out, even when cables are submerged under arctic sea ice. Companies use a hydrophobic, or “water hating,” gel to insulate individual cables inside durable Kevlar housing, all of which is surrounded by a metal or plastic conduit.
Cables laid in the ground, however, are usually only designed for exactly that state: to be primarily under mostly-dry ground. In New Orleans, of course, the line between underground and underwater can be a bit murky at times.
Replacing underground internet cables with cables designed to survive under sea water would be no simple or cheap task. Jovanovich and his colleagues estimated that 10 miles of undersea cable would cost about $7 million to install, whereas the typical underground fiber optics cables cost about $2.2 million for the same distance, inclusive of all electronics and landing stations. Aerial cables are cheapest, between $100,000 and $400,000 for a 10-mile stretch, but require more maintenance and risk being knocked down by trees during storms.
In this Dec. 12, 2014, file photo, waves break on the remains of a structure as a house that toppled over the eroding Pacific Ocean shoreline of North Cove, Wash., is shown in the background. Sea levels are expected to continue to rise along Washington state shorelines over the next decades. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Barford said his study does not attempt to predict impacts yet, but rather just to quantify risks and offer a warning in time for communities to respond to mitigate internet outages. Local outages might impact the individual consumer very little, he said, as they might just be able to switch to another provider that was unaffected by the specific submerged infrastructure. But, on the other hand, connectivity impacts could be severe. It’s hard to say at this point.
“Here’s my opinion,” Barford said. “If people pay attention to this, we can do a good job preserving our internet capability. If people don’t pay attention to this, well, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
When they mapped long-haul internet cable links across the country, Barford said, they found that New Orleans is actually on a path that connects many cities together.
“There’s a good deal of infrastructure that’s at risk in your area,” he warned.
This figure from the study by Durairajan, Barford and Barford shows the expected overlap of internet infrastructure and seawater in New York (left) and Miami (right) with average sea level rise of 6 feet.
Some companies are working on a plan
The cities at greatest risk of losing connectivity are New York, Miami and Seattle, each ranked more vulnerable by Barford’s study than New Orleans. Nationwide, the internet providers with the most to lose include CenturyLink, Inteliquent and AT&T – the last being one of the major high-speed internet providers in New Orleans.
AT&T declined to comment on whether it was aware of the study or has plans for dealing with threats to its infrastructure from climate change. It referred questions to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Cox Communications, another major New Orleans internet provider and one not listed in Barford’s study, said it has been engaged in conversations and planning at the national level for several years with organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in an effort to employ science to advance best practices around rising sea levels.
Louisiana state Sen. R.L. “Bret” Allain, Chairman of the Senate’s Coastal Restoration and Flood Control Committee, said in a statement that, “Studies like these continue to highlight the need for a healthy resilient coastal Louisiana to better withstand things like natural and manmade disasters, changing conditions along our coast and the impact those changes have on our infrastructure, economy and communities as a whole.”
Chuck Parrodin, public information director for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection Restoration Authority (CPRA) said the state’s plan to restore the coast covers all infrastructure but does not specifically address threats to the internet.
“Our 50-year master plan takes into account sea level rise to protect all the infrastructure, but there’s not any one thing we had in mind,” Parrodin said. “I mean, who even knows what the internet will be in fifty years? There’s just nothing very specific about the internet infrastructure that would mean we have a specific plan to protect it.”
Isle de Jean Charles – or what’s left of it. As south Louisiana wetlands continue to sink and as sea levels continue to rise, the island has become a vulnerable environmental outpost ringed by a low levee. (Satellite photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The hope for New Orleans
Norma Jean Mattei, interim dean of the college of engineering at the University of New Orleans and a lifelong New Orleanian, thinks the city’s long history of overcoming flooding and storm damage may actually be its savior in this case.
“(Hurricane) Katrina really actually did us a favor here. What a horrible thing to go through,” Mattei said. “But now we’re ahead of the curve on a lot of these lessons. Heck, I’m not even sure they’re taking into consideration our new, post-Katrina surge system.”
Indeed, Barford said the current study did not consider how cities like New Orleans may have specially adapted themselves to these kinds of risks, and that some communication systems may be built to be more robust to extreme events. New Orleans was fourth on Barford’s list of cities with the most long-haul cable at risk, with 43 miles of fiber conduit predicted to be underwater in 15 years.
Wet sheetrock is removed from the kitchen at the home of Julie and Earl Hebert in the Lakeview Cove subdivision in Denham Springs on Wednesday, August 17, 2016. It is the second time the Hebert’s have have had to deal with a major flood. The first time was following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Chris Granger, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)
Thousands of people lost communication abilities during Katrina in 2005, which made it difficult to keep track of loved ones and put lives at risk as many waited in silence on rooftops for rescue, without confirmation that their needs were known. Telephone and internet lines were some of the last utility services to be restored, according to Parrodin with the CPRA.
Given everything the city has been through, Jovanovich thinks New Orleans probably does have an unusually robust cabling system. Flooding with sea water is exactly the sort of thing local engineers and cable companies would consider when putting in new lines in New Orleans, he said.
But robust as the post-Katrina cabling in New Orleans might be, Jovanovich said it’s still not meant to be permanently under the sea.
“Can it withstand floods? Yes. Can it withstand a couple of months of being submerged after something like Katrina? You got a chance. But water’s going to find a way eventually. If you put those cables under water for a long period of time, water will find a way in,” he said.
Chief Albert Naquin walks with a remnant of his tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Indian community of the Isle de Jean Charles on the lake road, which has eroded to one lane with the passing of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. (Photo by Ted Jackson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Still, Jovanovich feels that there is likely better resiliency in New Orleans’ infrastructure, or at least more time to make changes, than in most of the cities considered at risk in Barford’s study. He is also hopeful that advances in coming years may mean we are less reliant on cables all together.
Long distance phone calls used to all be over microwave cables, Jovanovich pointed out. Then we went the way of fiber optics that promised all the great things electrical cables couldn’t do. Now, while he doesn’t believe we could ever go completely wireless, adopting 5G technology could mean some of these cables at risk won’t need to be replaced at all.
“You can see what I mean, 15 years ago did you have a cell phone?” he said over the phone. “Probably not. And now we’re all connected, and you don’t have a wire coming out of your cell phone.”
Contract workers for AT&T work repairing damaged fiber optic lines Thursday, March 29, 2007 in Montz. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
When the internet goes dark, who is responsible?
New Orleans sits at the vortex of so many environmental disasters – hurricanes, coastal erosion, sea level rise among them. But in terms of risks to internet infrastructure posed by sea level rise, the city’s history of weathering so many flooding events and its resulting more resilient cables may have earned it some extra time to respond to this one, experts say.
Still, it will need to respond. At least New Orleans’ high water table may keep its underground infrastructure from melting under record-breaking summer heat, as it did in Perth, Australiain 2015.
Clint Vince is chair of the Dentons law firm’s Global Energy Practice and a longtime consultant for the New Orleans City Council on energy issues. He was involved in the city bringing charges against Entergy after thousands of New Orleanians lost power for an extended period of time after Hurricane Katrina. After witnessing the communication breakdown and its consequences during Katrina, Vince has been involved in a ‘Smart Cities’ program recently launched in New Orleans and aimed at making sure local infrastructure can withstand future storms.
Vince said the city can, and likely will, impose regulations on private internet companies to ensure service requirements are met.
“It’s going to be the responsibility of all the essential service providers and the city to really have improved communications with every citizen,” Vince said. “All the major service providers need to improve. The technology now exists for far better communication with citizens in terms of staying in touch about what’s happening in a real-time basis.”
Vince also said, however, that Entergy has not met the city’s expectations for improvements since Katrina.
The cemetery in Leeville, clinging to the edge of the bayou as sea level rise and the subsidence of south Louisiana continues unabated. (Photo by Ted Jackson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Others don’t seem to have the same faith that the city will protect individuals from communications breakdowns. Mattei thinks the responsibility of staying connected may lie with the consumer. She recommends individuals prepare for risks of sea level rise by paying attention to what their internet providers are doing to keep them connected.
“The good news in the area of communications is it’s changing so much, and there is competition between the providers. It’s not like roads, you can’t shop for roads, you can’t shop for water or sewer,” Mattei said. “Be aware of the infrastructure that you rely on, and each category of infrastructure, it’s vulnerabilities. Eyes wide open.”
Perrodin said the state’s focus, and that of many experts when it comes to coastal restoration and the risk of sea level rise, is not specific enough to have a targeted plan for internet infrastructure.
“Tough story to find anybody that’s going to know anything about that,” he said. “You’re asking about a tree, but we’re trying to save the whole forest.”
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