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Sea Level Rise Could Sink Internet Infrastructure

Climate
Sea Level Rise Could Sink Internet Infrastructure
Bigbiggerboat / CC BY-SA 4.0

Sea level rise may be coming for your Internet.

The first ever study to look at the impact of climate change on the Internet found that more than 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable in U.S. coastal regions will be underwater within 15 years and 1,000 traffic hubs will be surrounded, a University of Wisconsin (UW)—Madison press release reported.


"Most of the damage that's going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later," senior study author and UW–Madison professor of computer science Paul Barford said in the release. "That surprised us. The expectation was that we'd have 50 years to plan for it. We don't have 50 years."

The study, conducted by researchers at UW–Madison and the University of Oregon and presented for the first time Monday at the 2018 Applied Networking Research Workshop in Montreal, mapped National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sea level rise projections over the Internet Atlas, which shows the location of the net's physical infrastructure. It found that the most vulnerable U.S. cities to sea level-based Internet disruption were Seattle, New York and Miami, but, since most data converges on fiber optic strands leading towards major population centers, the effects could ripple out across the country and around the world.

The study is one example of how public infrastructure must rapidly learn to adapt to climate change.

"We live in a world designed for an environment that no longer exists," climate risk modeling company Jupiter Intelligence co-founder Rich Sorkin told National Geographic in response to the study.

Buried cables were designed to be water resistant, but not entirely waterproof the way ocean-crossing cables are. They were also often laid alongside existing rights of way like highways or coasts.

"So much of the infrastructure that's been deployed is right next to the coast, so it doesn't take much more than a few inches or a foot of sea level rise for it to be underwater," Barford told National Geographic. "It was all was deployed 20-ish years ago, when no one was thinking about the fact that sea levels might come up."

One example is that the transoceanic cables that run between continents usually come ashore in major coastal population centers. Barford said in the press release those landing points would be underwater relatively soon.

The study did offer some suggestions for climate-proofing Internet infrastructure, from installing back-up lines to building protective layers around existing cables. The study also recommended having a protocol in place to give emergency workers priority access to working lines during disasters. But the researchers said these were temporary fixes; long-term solutions would require more innovation, Motherboard reported.

Some Internet service providers told NPR they already do take climate change and associated risks into account.

AT&T, for example, uses submarine cables in areas like beaches or subways expected to be frequently inundated.

Some actions were taken in response to extreme weather events that are expected to become more frequent as the planet warms. When Superstorm Sandy flooded some of its cables and disrupted service in New York City, Verizon worked to make more of its infrastructure flood proof.

"After Sandy, we started upgrading our network in earnest, and replacing our copper assets with fiber assets," Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz told NPR. "Copper is impacted by water, whereas fiber is not. We've switched significant amounts of our network from copper to fiber in the Northeast."

Schulz said most of the company's risk mitigation was designed around flooding generally, not sea level rise specifically, except when it came to the landing stations for transoceanic cables. "For cable landing stations that are very close to the oceans and that have undersea cables, we specifically assess sea level changes," Schulz told NPR.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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