Scott Eells / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Flooding the system: Climate change could knock the Internet offline

With the next extreme weather event just a matter of time, networks remain vulnerable to unpredictable acts of God

This story is the first part of the Internet Project, a series about what the future holds for Internet governance and infrastructure, presented in partnership with the GroundTruth Project.

For two or three days, J. Patrick Brown wasn’t sure if his whole family had made it out of New Orleans safely. They had decided to stay behind when Hurricane Katrina hit, to care for an ailing relative. Stuck inside without television or Internet access, they relied on him to call them from his college in Maine with updates on what was happening in the city.

When the city’s levees broke, he finally persuaded them to get out as quickly as they could. Not long after, the cell towers went down, and they lost contact.

“It really was devastating,” said Brown, 29, who now works as an editor in Boston. “I was just starting my second year of college. We were in the early orientation period, and I was in just a fugue state for three days. I don’t really remember very much.”

His family made it to safety in Baton Rouge, where they could stay with relatives and let him know they were OK. But 10 years later, he still finds it difficult to talk about.

“That period of time where I wasn't able to communicate with my family were some of the worst, darkest hours of my life,” he said.

The Internet may not be a true necessity like food or shelter, but Brown’s story illustrates how important a decent connection is in the event of a disaster. 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.

Those threats should drive how we design and plan Internet infrastructure, said Jon Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

“Large storms can cause a huge amount of damage, and sea level rise will only make them more dangerous. A rise of a few inches — as we’ve seen in recent decades — is very different than 4 or 5 feet, which is what the current best estimates are for sea level rise by 2100 if we don’t act on climate,” he said.

‘Large storms can cause a huge amount of damage, and sea level rise will only make them more dangerous. A rise of a few inches – as we’ve seen in recent decades – is very different than four or five feet, which is what the current best estimates are for sea level rise by 2100.’

Jon Koomey

research fellow, Stanford University

Hurricane Katrina gave an early indication of how climate can affect the Internet, and Sandy confirmed it. When the storm hit the New York City area in October 2012, it took out cellphone and Internet access in large parts of the city. While most of those outages were short-lived, some of the hardest-hit areas were without access for days, according to a 2013 report by the mayor’s office.

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. They make it more difficult for people to check on family and friends or organize relief efforts. In many cases, it was days before people could check on their loved ones.

“You can't make good decisions if you don't have the right information,” Brown said. “My parents probably would have tried to stay in their house well past the point where they would have been able to meet up with my grandmother and uncle or even try to get to higher ground.”

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.

Preparing for the worst

Thinking about how the Internet could break is part of Jascha Franklin-Hodge’s job as chief information officer for the city of Boston.

“As a coastal city in a world with a changing climate, there’s all sorts of risks associated with water. Certainly, we are aware of that,” he said. “That risk is not new, but we view it as a threat that is increasing, given the nature of climate change and the rise of more extreme weather incidents.”

To cope with that risk, Boston is moving the servers that run the city’s website out of a City Hall basement, according to Franklin-Hodge. It has run multiple fiber-optic connections to critical buildings in case one gets damaged and moved data outside the city entirely.

Those steps are important for making sure the municipal government can stay connected in an emergency. But most people, businesses and institutions depend on private telecom companies like Verizon, Comcast and RCN for broadband access. It doesn’t matter if the city’s website stays up if those connections go down for people who want access.

The city doesn’t have the power to require that private broadband or cell providers toughen their infrastructure, he said. Those industries fall under a loose patchwork of federal and state regulations, and no single agency oversees the network as a whole. Outside of 911 dialing access, the federal resiliency standards that exist for the online world are entirely voluntary.

After Hurricane Sandy, New York City moved to assert greater regulatory control over telecom companies that operate in the city. It’s pushing for greater oversight at the federal and state levels too. The city is working with telecom companies to receive more information about outages — a major blind spot during Sandy.

That approach could prove challenging in Boston, where Comcast is the broadband provider for 90 percent of homes. If the company’s service went down, whether from a severe storm or a technical glitch, much of Boston would go with it. 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.”

East Village residents charge their phones by generator after many New York City neighborhoods were left without power for days after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
Allison Joyce / Getty Images

While New York City has relatively good broadband competition, many other major U.S. metro areas are in Boston’s situation — including Minneapolis–St. Paul and Los Angeles. That lack of competition has made the Internet less resistant, according to Willow Brugh, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who works on mobilizing technology to respond to disasters.

“One of the things that we’ve done to ourselves is that we’ve recentralized our communications structures by letting it be a monopoly by Comcast or because it is technically cheaper to lay lines like that,” Brugh said. “We open ourselves up to what the Internet was originally preventing, which was single points of failure.”

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.

In a part of Brooklyn hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, the Red Hook Initiative’s Red Hook WiFi project enlists young adults from a public housing development to build a decentralized network that provides free broadband access to local residents. When the electric or broadband grids go down, the network is designed to stay on so residents can get critical information and communicate with one another.

The 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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