The Backbone of the Internet Could Detect Earthquakes, But No One's Using It
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The Backbone of the Internet Could Detect Earthquakes, But No One's Using It

Almost 1 million kilometers of telecom cables cover the ocean floor, but they’re “deaf, blind and dumb” to their environment.
August 11, 2015, 2:58pm

December 26, 2004: It is an idyllic morning at a beachside resort in Indonesia. The beach is scattered with locals and tourists enjoying the fine weather, and the giddy screams of children running in and out of the surf electrify the air. Suddenly, there is no longer a surf to frolic in as the tide rolls back. And keeps on rolling. Eventually it is hard to see the waterline from where the tourists are sunning themselves on the beach. Some shade their eyes as they scan the horizon, idly appraising this bizarre natural phenomenon.

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Eventually the reality of the situation dawns on someone. What they are all witnessing is the precursor to a tsunami.

The screams of children are quickly replaced by those of the beachgoers as they shout to run like hell. A few of those on the beach stand paralyzed, entranced by the wave that has appeared on the horizon, barreling towards them at 300 miles per hour.

By the time the water receded, the tsunami had claimed nearly 230,000 lives across 14 countries in Southeast Asia, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. While international crews worked around the clock to rebuild the communities devastated by the earthquake, one pressing question hung in the air: where were all the warnings?

As it turns out, there was already a massive infrastructure in place that had the capacity to detect tsunamis early, if only those in control of this infrastructure had opted to make use of it: the massive, submarine telecommunication cable network.

These submarine fiber optic cables are a major component of the now-deceased Senator Ted Stevens' much-maligned, but not entirely wrong, conception of the internet: a series of 285 tubes that makes everything from global finance to Netflix to the consumption of niche foreign pornography possible.

Although the nearly 1 million kilometers of submarine fiber optic networks is responsible for over 97 percent of international data transfer, a number of seismologists, oceanographers and climate scientists are arguing that we still are not using these cables to their full potential, an oversight that they claim could have saved thousands of lives.

AT&T and other telecom companies have paid lip service to the idea of integrating sensors, Butler says, but proposal after proposal for smart cables has fallen through

"Right now the current system of cables on the seafloor is deaf, dumb, and blind," said Rhett Butler, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the University of Hawaii. "Although they carry trillions of bits of information and basically run the global economy at this point, they don't know anything about the environment they're in. They don't measure anything at all and that seems crazy."

Butler has been advocating for smarter submarine cables since 1987, when telecom companies such as AT&T were in the process of making the transition from analog to fiber optic cables.

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The theory is that cable relay stations can be outfitted with a number of monitoring devices, including seismographs, pressure gauges, and accelerometers, giving scientists access to critical data used in monitoring global climate change as well as the early detection of earthquakes and tsunamis.

According to Butler, these proposals throughout the early 90s were generally well-received by cable engineers, but the projects were ultimately deemed "too risky" by telecoms and were never implemented.

These submarine cables typically have a shelf-life of 25 years. Now that many of these older cables are being decommissioned, Butler and his colleagues have renewed their call to make these cables smart by equipping them with various environmental sensors.

The current push for smart cables began in 2011 at "the Rome Meeting," a workshop organized by a joint task force of the International Telecommunications Union, UNESCO, and the World Meteorological Organization to discuss the feasibility of using submarine cables for climate, earthquake and tsunami monitoring.

The strategies outlined at the Rome Meeting culminated in the release of a report by the task force last October, which investigated the "scientific and social case for the integration of environmental sensors into new submarine telecommunications cables."

The task force was chaired by Butler, who ultimately argued that if we fail to integrate various environmental sensors in the latest generation of submarine cables, we are missing a crucial opportunity to mitigate the fallout from serious disasters.

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"When you look at the problems we face in terms of deaths from tsunamis or earthquakes and the long term threat of global [climate] change, if we don't monitor for that with the available technologies then we're missing the boat," said Butler.

A low budget animation depicting how submarine cables are installed.

"When [people] realize that the Tohoku earthquake killed over 20,000 people [in] one of the most advanced countries on the planet or the Sumatra tsunami killed 250,000 people because [these countries] didn't have enough monitoring capability, that really makes [them] think," said Butler. "This stuff is happening all the time."

Besides alerting of impending disasters, smart cables could collect scientific data regarding temperature and pressure changes along the seafloor.

"Most people don't realize that almost all of our knowledge of the ocean is limited to the top two kilometers. Well, most of the ocean is 4 – 5 kilometers deep," said Butler. "You have to appreciate the earth as a system so if you monitor the top and don't monitor the bottom. If you're not monitoring this and the climate does change, you'll never know why [because] you're missing part of the whole equation."

Since it isn't possible to send lasers through a cable all the way across the ocean, these cables are outfitted with repeaters about every 50 kilometers which amplify the signals. The sensors would be installed at these relay stations, allowing them to make use of the power supplied to the repeaters and transmit data back to shore.

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In terms of rote economics, implementing these sensors into the cable system would be "peanuts" compared to what telecom consortiums are already paying to lay cables across oceans. According to the October ITU report, adding these sensors would add an additional 5-10 percent to the cost of laying a new cable, which generally cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"For a typical system, [the telecom consortiums] expect to make their money back in three to four years," said Butler. "From a purely industry point of view, [integrating sensors into the cables] maybe means an extra six months before they get their money back."

The ITU report argues that making the submarine cables smart would have economic benefits as well. These sensors would also allow telecom companies to monitor the health of the cables themselves, helping mitigate the frequent cable breakage from things like dragging anchors, earthquakes, and even sharks.

Submarine Communications Cables, via ITU 2014 Report

These environmental sensors would also represent a marked improvement over current tsunami and earthquake monitoring systems, which can be ineffective fiscal black holes. NOAA's Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoy system sinks hundreds of thousands of dollars each year into repairs (with a trip to repair a single buoy costing upwards of $25,000).

Each winter when the weather on the high seas begins to get particularly rough, DART will lose two to four buoys, which they will not be able to repair until the following summer, creating troubling information gaps within the monitoring system. In other areas, particularly the Indian Ocean, these tsunami buoys are often vandalized, only exacerbating the problem with coverage and repairs.

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"If you start replacing or using part of these funds to put in an infrastructure that doesn't have to be fixed and replaced every single year, then it will in the long term provide better, more secure and reliable data," said Butler. "The big advantage of working with telecom [companies] is that they'll go fix [snapped cables] because their gravy train is cut off if it's not working. It's amazing how fast they'll go out to fix these things in any weather because they're losing uncountable revenue each second."

While installing sensors seems very intuitive and of significant benefit to pretty much everyone, as Butler put it, "even if it's win-win all around, someone has to come up with the dollars."

According to Butler, AT&T and other telecom companies have paid lip service to the idea of integrating sensors into the cables, but he has watched proposal after proposal for smarter cables fall through for a variety of reasons.

"[The telecom companies] narrowly focus on making [the cables] as fast as possible, as reliable as possible. They don't really go beyond thinking about the narrow purpose," he said. "Yet in a certain sense mankind has given the nod to lay cables across the open sea floor without any restrictions, so it seems to me to be a little reasonable [for the telecom companies to have] a little obligation on their part to help people out."

Due to the nature of submarine telecom cables, which are not only inherently international ventures but are almost exclusively maintained by multi-national telecom consortiums, made up of companies such as Google, Verizon, and Alcatel (Facebook even owns part of the Asia Pacific Gateway cable) and traverse great expanses of territory that is outside of any particular government's jurisdiction, getting the hundreds of private and public players in telecom to come together to take action has been understandably difficult.

Nevertheless, progress is being made. Butler and his colleagues mostly focus on advocacy and proofs of concept, testing out sensors on old analog and electro-optic cables that have been donated to the University of Hawaii by AT&T after their decommissioning by various telecom companies. The National Science Foundation and Canadian government have separately funded their own smart cables in the Pacific Northwest, fully equipped with seismometers, pressure gauges and other similar instruments. After the disastrous Tohoku earthquake in 2011, Japan invested heavily in submarine sensors which have been placed off the coast to monitor changes in pressure and seismic activity.

As climate scientists and others herald our age as that in which natural disasters such as Tohoku and Sumatra are the "new normal," it is becoming imperative to find ways to adapt to increasingly frequent and devastating environmental crises. Making the seafloor smart is no magic bullet for climate change and natural disasters, but it's a damn good starting place for mitigating their effects.

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.