Internet 101

National Geographic discusses the history of the internet in Internet 101, starting from how it used to be ARPANET and beyond. No, it wasn’t invented by Al Gore. In the future, however, key bits of its infrastructure may be sunk underwater:

When the internet goes down, life as the modern American knows it grinds to a halt. Gone are the cute kitten photos and the Facebook status updates—but also gone are the signals telling stoplights to change from green to red, and doctors’ access to online patient records.

A vast web of physical infrastructure undergirds the internet connections that touch nearly every aspect of modern life. Delicate fiber optic cables, massive data transfer stations, and power stations create a patchwork of literal nuts and bolts that facilitates the flow of zeros and ones.

Now, research shows that a whole lot of that infrastructure sits squarely in the path of rising seas. (See what the planet would look like if all the ice melted.)

Scientists mapped out the threads and knots of internet infrastructure in the U.S. and layered that on top of maps showing future sea level rise. What they found was ominous: Within 15 years, thousands of miles of fiber optic cable—and hundreds of pieces of other key infrastructure—are likely to be swamped by the encroaching ocean. And while some of that infrastructure may be water resistant, little of it was designed to live fully underwater.

“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,” says study coauthor Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It was all was deployed 20ish years ago, when no one was thinking about the fact that sea levels might come up.” [Learn about how cities may be underwater soon].

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