The World Is Melting But at Least We’ll Have Better Internet Because of It

Arctic sea ice once prevented ships from installing the undersea cables that support the internet. That’s no longer the case.
July 5, 2016, 1:00pm

Climate shift is mostly bad news, but it is now giving internet-lovers a half-hearted reason to cheer. "Thanks" to a warming planet and retreating pack-ice in the Arctic Ocean, installation of a 15,000 km undersea fiber-optic cable directly linking Europe and Asia for the first time is now possible.

It's easy to forget that today's internet is supported by a vast network of cables zig-zagging over 600,000 miles along our ocean floor. These tangled strips of wire now support basically all of our international communications, and as the internet has grown over the past two decades, so too has the size of this submarine network.

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Until recently, the ships required to install these cables couldn't navigate the icy Northwest Passage, the arctic sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But today that's no longer the case.

Next year, people across the Arctic will come online with current technology

"Ice cover has dramatically decreased everywhere in the Arctic since we started mapping it with passive microwave satellites in 1979," says Laurence C. Smith, UCLA professor of geography and author of The World in 2050.

Smith, has been studying the Arctic for 24 years. "The rapidity and scope of the physical changes there have been astonishing," he said.

Though it's alarming stuff, these changes are now allowing cable ships to pass through the southern part of the Northwest Passage. That means better internet for the people living in the Arctic and, eventually, a stronger internet infrastructure for the world.

In an email conversation with Quintillion Networks, the communications operator installing the cables, a spokesperson shared that the first phase of the project is underway with installation of a subsea cable beginning this month. During this phase, the company will bury an underwater cable connected to a land-line in Fairbanks, Alaska, which will support broadband access points in six communities across Northern Alaska.

Residents there, some living in the remotest parts of North America, will no longer depend solely on expensive satellite and microwave systems for their telecommunication services. For many, it will be the first time that affordable internet with high-speed features like video streaming is available. The company says it is on schedule to offer access to these Alaskan cables in early 2017.

In later phases of the project, Quintillion Networks will extend the network internationally to Europe and Asia, representing the first time the two continents will be directly linked by cable.

In addition to cutting latency, these arctic cables add a layer of redundancy to our global communication systems. Today's cable networks remain at risk from a handful of threats including earthquakes, spy stuff, and the occasional errant shark bite, and any damage done can have far-reaching effects on global internet speeds.

So next year, people across the Arctic will come online with current technology. It's difficult to celebrate given the way its come about, but at least now the people whose lives may be impacted by climate shift can read all about it—or not—on the internet.