Flooding the system: Climate change could knock the Internet offline

Author: Joshua Eaton
Source: Aljazeera America
Date: October 12, 2015
Additional Source: The GroundTruth Project

While the global Internet seems a genuine model of resilience, events like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012 have shown how quickly it can break down on a local level. With climate change set to increase the intensity and frequency of severe weather, there is a fear that extreme events could unpredictably wreak havoc on parts of the Internet.

The Internet depends on buildings, wires, servers and conduits. And that physical infrastructure is just as vulnerable as any other. That has government, industry and nonprofits all working to build sturdier infrastructure before the next catastrophic storm hits.

With temperatures rising and sea levels mounting, storms like Katrina will become both more common and more dangerous, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. A stretch of the East Coast between North Carolina and Massachusetts will be especially vulnerable to storm surge — a wall of ocean water pushed onto shore — as it experiences considerably greater sea level rise than the worldwide average, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. Other parts of the country will continue to see increases in flooding, droughts and wildfires, detrimentally affecting critical infrastructure.

Unlike some other parts of critical infrastructure, the Internet is built with redundancies. Global Internet traffic was quickly rerouted when major network hubs in New York City went down during Sandy, according to separate analyses of network traffic by Dyn and the RIPE Network Coordination Center. Other major storms, like Katrina, have also had little effect on the global flow of Internet traffic.  But that does not mean local outages can’t cause big problems.

Many service providers in New York have reinforced their infrastructure since Hurricane Sandy, switching from easily damaged copper cables to flood-resistant fiber optics or relocating backup power to higher floors. But it’s not just New York City’s telecom infrastructure that’s at risk.

Four months before Sandy, severe thunderstorms took down an Amazon data center in northern Virginia, temporarily bringing down Netflix, Instagram and Pinterest. Earlier this year, thousands of people in western Australia lost Internet access when temperatures hit 111 degrees Fahrenheit and knocked out an iiNet data center.

Example: As a vulnerable coastal city Boston is working to move its government data servers to safer locations outside of the central hub. However, as 90% of the local area relies on the private company Comcast for internet service, if Comcast went down due to an environmental concern, most of the city would loose connection with it.
Risk of service providers creating a monopoly: Franklin-Hodge hopes the city can diversify its broadband market and build more resilient infrastructure by encouraging greater competition. But he won’t rule out regulation, if that’s what it takes.

“Their broadband services are more or less unregulated, and there is no market pressure that is pushing them to provide better resiliency or redundancy,” he said of Comcast. “There’s no governmental oversight organization that is monitoring what they’re doing. That is a very high risk.”

Solution: Now groups in New York City, Silicon Valley, Detroit and elsewhere are trying to buck that trend with small, decentralized networks that can plug into the broader Internet or provide local communication if Internet access goes down.

he goal isn’t just to build more durable machines, according to Greta Byrum, a senior field analyst for New America’s Resilient Communities program. The project also aims to build the human connections, technical skills and local knowledge that will make those machines useful in an emergency.

“What we see over and over again is it’s individual and citizen-based responses that are really vital for the survival of communities … We need to have local and small-scale and easily fixed communications systems in an emergency or disaster,” she said.


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