Data has replaced oil as the world’s most valuable resource. But increasingly, our data is stored remotely “in the cloud” and climate change – challenging the resilience of the Internet – is putting access to our data at risk.
Urban planner Duane Werner has learned how vulnerable our data is in the world of climate change.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed his office in Lemont, Illinois, in March 2019, Werner was fortunate that he was already working from home.
Unfortunately, what didn’t work was his internet connection.
“I had horrible reliability issues with my internet in my home,” Werner recalls. “We’ve spent countless hours with the supportive people.”
Finally, he said, a senior technician was able to diagnose the problem: It was a flood. Unusually heavy winter snow, ice and spring rain disrupted the fiber-optic box on his street, which connected Werner and his neighbors to the Internet.
Ironically, Werner handles disaster planning and infrastructure resilience at the Illinois Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where he runs the group responsible for protecting critical infrastructure. Internet includes.
The global Internet infrastructure was created in the 1980s and 1990s with systems and buildings in places designed to withstand the climate of the past. As Werner learned, the climate of the future is already disturbing the present.
““With climate change, we are stressing these systems in ways that have not been stressed before,” he said. “There is an increase in precipitation and flooding in areas that were not accustomed to flooding. This is where the resilience of the Internet will be more vulnerable and more vulnerable.”
A large part of the Internet is interrupted by a thread – an optical fiber thread. A single cable can include hundreds of glass or plastic strands and transmit terabytes of data to the cloud. But while the cables are sheathed with protective caps, they are still vulnerable to harsh weather.
A potential problem is access to data during a weather disaster, said Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Institute for Global Resilience at Northeastern University.
Many people think of data as streams of ones and zeros, Flynn said, that “magically travel through the air.” But in reality, the data “moves through a physical infrastructure”. Flynn said that protecting vulnerable nodes on the Internet is a priority because we rely heavily on the Internet for almost every aspect of our lives.
Today, an estimated 31 billion devices connect us to our data in the cloud. By 2025, it is expected that there will be 75 billion.
Internet redundancy makes it resilient in nature. If part of the network is down, data can be forwarded. But it is possible that some of the nodes along the infrastructure that connects us with our information are vulnerable. Some of these are “mission critical,” or what Flynn called Internet control systems a “lifeline.”
He turned it off: water, electricity, communications.
“We really have to make sure that they are able to provide some level of essential functionality no matter what comes our way,” he said. “This is a new mindset that we really have to embrace.”
Seabrook’s ‘Mission Critical’ system
Natalie Heldt-Treat, executive director of C-10 based in Amesbury, Massachusetts, said her group has really embraced the mindset, because they have to.
C-10 monitors the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, located directly across the border in New Hampshire. That makes it “the only independent field monitoring network surrounding a nuclear plant,” Triet said.
The group has been a leader in efforts to make the Internet more resilient against climate change by focusing on the unique network of monitoring stations around the power plant.
The C-10 was formed in the 1990s by citizen activists who live 10 miles from the Seabrook plant.
In the early days, volunteers would drive to observation posts and collect floppy disks filled with radiometric data, wind speed and direction. Such data could be crucial during a nuclear disaster: during the Fukushima crisis, residents were evacuated to the radiation path because there was no independent way to track the wind.
Today, C-10 collects data in real time, from 18 classified, Internet-connected locations.
“We need an uninterruptible power supply, as well as the Internet, to keep working, “the clearest cure.” With the effects of climate change and more floods and storms, it is critical that we have eyes and ears on the safety of the station. “
In October 2019, the day before Treat was scheduled to meet with state officials and ask for money to make the C-10 monitoring network climate-resistant, a fierce storm hit the coast.
“We’ve had one of these weather events due to hurricanes, and I think six of our stations have been down – some maybe for a few days so Mike can get them all running,” she said. “That was a wake-up call.”
The “Mike” she’s referring to is Michael Manser, director of the C-10 network, who recently pointed to a white dot on a computer at the heart of the organization’s network in Amesbury. The point represents the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Surrounded by 18 small circles – C-10 remote monitoring stations that measure beta and gamma radiation and winds.
Mansour said maintaining communication and collecting data is a very important task.
“We have lost internet in different locations and I actually have two stations that went down last night and I have to troubleshoot,” he said. “I suppose there is a network problem.”
C-10 is seeking support from the state and local donors to make its detection network resilient in the face of climate change. To show where it could be installed, Mansour entered an old mill building in Amsbury and climbed three flights of stairs, which led to one of the observation stations at Seabrook.
“Now, this might be an ideal location for the spare battery unit,” he said, approaching a door that opens to the roof. He cautioned against getting too close to the roof edge – “It’s a little scary here sometimes.”
From the surface, the antenna was visible at Powwow Hill – the highest spot in the area.
“This is our radiological probe and here is our anemometer,” he said, pointing to the rooftop devices.
C-10’s plan is to protect Seabrook’s monitoring stations from the climate with solar panel-powered, battery-powered wireless transmitters. The data will be sent to a tower on top of the hill and back to headquarters wirelessly.
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The solution was designed by David Theodore, co-founder of Cohasset-based Climate Resilient Internet.
“Someone had to solve this problem as the digital age faces the wrath of climate change,” said Theodore. “It’s not even a new technology.”
In the 1950s radio waves were used in the 1960s and 1970s to carry phone calls across the country, and Theodore was involved in creating some of the early wireless internet networks across Boston and Cambridge.
Theodore’s solution to making the internet resilient to climate change will use this old technology in a new way. He said wireless backup of data, stored remotely in the cloud, could bypass physical Internet links that could be disrupted by climate change.
“If Boston loses internet and cloud access for weeks, there will be billions of dollars in losses, and it will be hard to come back from that.”
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy broke the internet in parts of Lower Manhattan and Wall Street, and it took days to restore service to some locations. Hurricane Maria has wiped out parts of the internet in Puerto Rico for months.
We must build the Internet with the expectation that climate change will disrupt it, said Stephen Flynn of Northeastern University.
“So you actually have in the design the means to get it back up and running again, and those are design things that we have the engineering and scientific knowledge to do,” he said. But the market, though, hasn’t rewarded us with investment to do so.”
The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has teamed up with Internet service provider AT&T to use government supercomputers and climate change models to predict and map future Internet vulnerabilities globally and locally. Phase one focuses on Ashburn, Virginia, where 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows.
“We are all at risk,” said Duane Werner of Argonne. “We all need to think about how we can get backups inside our homes and then build from there.”
We can hope for the best, but the rapidly changing climate requires us to prepare for the worst.