Future Tense

Biden and the Underseas Cable Underworld

Massive internet cables may already be below water—but they can still drown.

Joe Biden hugs a giant cable.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement.

The internet is quite literally in deep trouble, with a potential apocalypse approaching more imminently than you may realize.

In about 15 years, the waters that are rising due to the effects of climate change could drown the more than 4,000 miles of underseas fiber optic cables that transmit the internet connections of everyone who lives in the U.S. and is hooked to the grid. You read that correctly: The already-underseas cables will drown. How does something drown if it’s already surviving (occasional shark attack notwithstanding) below water? Well, the cables themselves connect with buildings above sea level—often just barely above it—at both ends in order to bring these transmissions to land. If, and when, rising seas submerge the cable ends themselves, the networks will become unusable, with major consequences for national and international communication and security. According to CNN, as of 2019 there are more than 380 such cables in operation—and as Rhett Butler, a University of Hawaii professor who’s worked on both extreme weather monitoring and underseas cable reuse and redevelopment efforts for decades, told me, these cables carry at least 95 percent of internet traffic. As you can see in this map from the World Economic Forum, these cables cover an astounding portion of Earth, crisscrossing throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and encircling the coasts of South America and Africa.

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So, it’s a big deal, and if action isn’t taken on both a domestic and global scale, the worst-case scenarios are mind-boggling. Think back to what happened in New York and New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy: Their underground internet infrastructure was disrupted by the storm surges, leading to massive outages and overreliance on smaller aboveground networks without the same capacity. There are global implications as well: International connections could vanish, leaving far more constricted, insular networks than before. Few other connection sources—nope, not even 5G—can make up for that lost, wide-spanning capacity. As Nicole Starosielski, an NYU professor and scholar of undersea networks, told me over email, if this comes to pass, “there will be an internet largely confined to continents, with only some networks able to achieve satellite backup.” No other alternative infrastructure, whether satellite or aboveground connection, “would have the same advantages of current systems” and carry the same capacity. Many of these cables, which were built in the 1990s without climate change in mind, could be doomed. And some nations’ entire economic lifelines could be screwed with them, like in the Pacific Islands, where countries receive ample foreign investment for cable development. Climate disaster could take away both their connection and a crucial source of income. And, ironically enough, these cables are used to help gather data on climate impacts, so climate change could mess up the very tools we need to monitor the impact of climate change.

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Thankfully, some countries have been looking into this issue. Portugal released a government order in September mandating the implementation of “smart” submarine cables that connect its mainland to its archipelagos and help monitor conditions within the waters. More than 160 major companies from several countries are members of the International Cable Protection Committee, which helps monitor legislation regarding cable preservation and liaises with relevant United Nations committees. And politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. have been looking at the cables issue from a national security perspective, emphasizing their physical fragility and likely vulnerability to cyberattacks.

But the bulk of that government attention is being spent on military-constructed submarine cables carrying classified information, while most internet cables are privately owned. (You can see this in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Clean Network” agenda, which only mentions protecting cables in the context of possible Chinese Communist Party cyberattacks.) Still, there are significant things the incoming Joe Biden administration could do to address this issue—and take the global lead on protecting the web.

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Mark Nevitt, an assistant professor at the Syracuse University College of Law (and Slate contributor), told me over email that this effort should be wrapped up as part of any major infrastructure initiative—meaning, yes, any Infrastructure Week should also address the internet. “Repairing and protecting our climate-exposed cables can and should be part of any concrete infrastructure legislation,” he wrote, citing Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan that “seeks to withstand the impacts of climate change” with investments in the grid, among other things. Of course, this would depend on Congress’ willingness to pass an ambitious package with such features.

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The researchers I spoke with emphasized two things: planning and money. Starosielski wrote that Biden should “put financial support behind the development of more climate-secure, resilient, and diverse infrastructure (which is at times not economically viable), and develop policies for cable protection in tandem with the efforts of the International Cable Protection Committee.” When I asked what specific layout would support that infrastructure, Starosielski mentioned “more diverse paths, different cable landing points, and less concentrated infrastructure hubs,” so that if “climate change disrupts some parts of the network, the global network as a whole will continue to function.” One example can be found in Japan, according to Butler: The 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake damaged existing cables coming into Japan, but it did not become an issue of immediate alarm because telecoms companies there “had learned years earlier not just to have a single cable traverse across the Pacific, [but to] make it a loop, such that if something happens to one part of the loop, the other part can carry the traffic.”

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Paul Barford, a University of Wisconsin computer science professor and co-author of a study on the effects of climate change on the internet, sounded less worried about cables sinking anytime soon, because of the financial interests of the telecoms firms involved with cables. But he still says planning now is important. From the get-go, “simply assessing what the current state of this infrastructure is would be something that the government could potentially motivate and potentially help to facilitate,” Barford said. And considering how “unbelievably expensive” these cables are, with costs running into “tens and hundreds of millions of dollars,” it would be a boon if the federal government poured in “funding to help facilitate new deployments or to harden current infrastructure.” (To get an idea of the staggering costs, it’s worth reading more about the materials, ship transport requirements, and delicate, intricate repair processes that go into these cables—it would be a massive investment that would require not only the help of the U.S. government but other international governments to back cable companies up with the needed funds.)

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Butler noted that additional technology could be added to submarine cables to help with the very effort to save them—namely, attached sensors that could monitor temperature and pressure underwater, and even look out for disasters such as earthquakes. Monitoring the waters will be important to predicting future sea levels and extreme weather, helping scientists and engineers to prepare in advance. In addition to Portugal, which is already on it, Butler says such talks are ongoing with the French government as well. He also mentioned the Tsunami Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2014, as an example of practical legislation that would help require tsunami preparedness officials to work with commercial and federal cable companies to better monitor storms’ effect on the internet. More such collaborations between government weather officials and telecoms firms will be needed in the future to survey the problem, Butler stressed.

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All of which is to say: This is a tricky, complex issue on a dazzling scale that will require leadership, cooperation, careful planning, and funds upon funds. If Joe Biden is serious about his “FDR-size” presidency, he needs to get very, very serious about virtual networks, pressuring the telecoms companies in charge to not only save their cables but think ahead to the future, build more, and build more sustainably—to build back better, if you will. Climate change will reshape our world as we know it, and there are myriad other environmental problems related to the internet that will also need to be addressed. But first, we should ensure that the world can still have access to a working internet at all.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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