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Internet Infrastructure: Where foreign affairs and the climate crisis intersect

As international relations depend on internet cables, the vulnerability of cable systems to climate change is a growing concern, writes Nicole Starosielski.

By: /
30 July, 2019
Workers observe a fiber optic cable near Bilbao, northern Spain, June 13, 2017, after Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. joined forces to build a cable across the Atlantic Ocean. REUTERS/Vincent West
Nicole Starosielski
By: Nicole Starosielski

Associate professor, New York University

When most people think about struggles over the global internet, platforms and content come to mind: the $5 billion fine levied at Facebook for privacy violations. Antitrust law and Google and Amazon’s corporate monopolies. The discrimination of artificial intelligence. The politics of content moderation and data governance.

Occasionally, hardware surfaces, as in the case of Australian, Japanese and US bans on Chinese telecom manufacturers. More often, infrastructure is relegated to the background. The expansive web of cables, data centres, internet exchanges, cloud services and content delivery networks are invisible to most users. As a result, they are less often a target of governance.

This is especially true for the most international of all internet infrastructure: undersea cables. Cable systems are the backbone of the global internet. They carry almost all internet traffic across continents and underneath oceans. They facilitate transactions between financial centres. They are the means by which air transportation and shipping is coordinated. And they transport the bulk of all messages between people around the world. Undersea cables are a primary medium of foreign relations.

Cables have supported global interconnection — and re-shaped global trade, relationships and policies — since the nineteenth century. But today the sheer amount of digital information circulated means that nations are highly dependent on cables. When the Polynesian islands that make up Tonga were subject to a set of cable breaks this past January, it disrupted banking, tourism, transportation and business. Being severed from the cable network can produce a rift in a nation’s social and economic stability. If climate change threatens the cable network, it could transform all international relations.

The internet under water

As National Geographic reported last year in “The Internet is Drowning,” climate change poses a threat to the internet’s infrastructure. At first, undersea cables might seem an exception, offering a secure means of communication in rising waters. But cables, like so many other communications systems, are vulnerable to environmental changes and extreme weather.

“If climate change threatens the cable network, it could transform all international relations.”

Cables are susceptible both along their winding subsea routes and at their coastal landing points. Many cable stations, the places where systems terminate after coming ashore, were built before climate change was a consideration in builders’ minds. Stations are often located near the coast, sometimes just a short walk from the beach. Some extend underground well below sea level in Cold War-style bunkers. Some exist in remote areas, where human access could become impossible in extreme weather. Amy Marks of XSite Modular, a company that manufactures telecommunications infrastructure, argues that changing weather patterns are “a real threat for cable landing stations.”

But the undersea network won’t be the first casualty of climate change, by far. Compared to other built architectures, cable landing stations are some of the most secure locations in the internet’s infrastructure. There’s surveillance. There are fences and concrete walls. There are backup generators and batteries in case the power goes out. In some cases, cable stations have become places of refuge for employees when local power and water shut off. In any given community, the cable station is likely to be one of the safest places to be. Marks recounts that in 2018 an XSite Modular cable station in Tinian, near Guam, even made it through a direct hit by a Category 5 super typhoon without any damage.

But even these hardened infrastructures — with their backup generators and insulated systems — eventually require people and power to function. The global network cannot be sustained without the grid. As the environment changes, the grid fails and people are subject to floods and fires, the cable station, too, will be exposed to the elements. In the process, so will the international connections that it supports.

Escaping to outer space?

Cables still carry almost all internet traffic, but there’s been some recent hype about the return of satellite. SpaceX’s Elon Musk plans to launch close to 12,000 internet-delivering satellites. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is a broadband system with over 3,000 satellites. OneWeb promises to finally give everyone access to reliable, high-speed internet. These projects are the beginning of an internet space race, all taking place in the low-Earth orbit, less than 2,000 km above the planet’s surface.

Although these satellites extend service to locations that would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach by undersea cables, they do not approach the amount of capacity cables provide. They are not an alternative internet backbone. At the recent SubOptic conference, Tim Stronge and Alan Mauldin of the research firm Telegeography conducted an analysis of the competition. Even with the many satellites planned, they showed that space systems are unlikely to match — or even come close to — the undersea network. For now, and in the future, the global economy, international relations and digital exchanges will all remain tied to a communications system that rests on the ocean floor and which is subject to changes in terrestrial and oceanic conditions.

Securing the system

The cable industry is aware of climate change — and many people have started researching ways to make the system greener. These include decreasing cables’ power consumption, planning for solar and wind power, and reducing the energy use of massive cable laying ships. There are even science cables deployed as a means of tracking ocean conditions and, by extension, the effects of climate change. Cable owners have also begun to think about protecting networks themselves from climate change.

Historically, cable protection has been driven by the telecommunications industry rather than governments, even though many governments have declared cables “critical infrastructure.” Cables have generally benefitted both from their relative invisibility to policymakers and from the freedoms granted to them under the Law of the Sea. The International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), the organization dedicated to protecting the cable system, has tackled a growing wave of new threats — and not just climate change. There have been conflicts with the expanding array of other seabed users, from offshore energy operators to deep-sea miners. The acceleration of global shipping means that more boats can drop anchor on cables in shallow landing zones. The disruption of cables by anchors, which occurs regularly, remains difficult to prevent, although redundancy in the overall system keeps these disruptions from being felt.

The ICPC, using peer-reviewed, evidence-based data, has also identified a number of potential climate change related threats, beyond the obvious impacts on coastal infrastructure. Laying cables depends on a stable sea. As chairman of the ICPC Graham Evans describes, “more vigorous sea conditions will influence cable laying and maintenance operations.” Greater instability in the seabed, whether caused by stronger storms or coastal flooding, could also disrupt networks. Human activities are changing with the climate, and people might begin fishing and anchoring in previously protected cable zones.

At the same time such threats have increased, governments have also begun to assert sovereignty more strongly over (and through) network infrastructure. These range from Russia’s disconnection test, to intentional internet blackouts (for example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, among others), to the splitting of Yemen’s internet, to establishing internet exchanges to keep data local. Internet infrastructure is not only the medium of global interconnection, it is also a means of asserting national interests.

Even as governments attempt to influence and stake a claim over the internet, they rarely perceive the complexity of the threats that might undermine it, especially the threat of climate change to cable infrastructure. There is little coordinated effort among governments to shore up the ICPC’s efforts or plan for the security of the system as a whole. As a result, the vulnerability of cables to climate change and other risks are increasingly of concern to states as well.

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