Data has replaced oil as the world’s most valuable resource. But increasingly, our data is being stored remotely “in the cloud”, and climate change – a challenge to internet resilience – is putting access to our data at risk.
Urban planner Duane Verner learned how vulnerable our data is in the climate-changing world.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed his Lemont, Illinois office in March 2019, Verner was lucky enough to already be working from home.
What unfortunately didn’t work was his internet connection.
“I had terrible problems with the reliability of my own internet in my own home,” Verner recalls. “We’ve spent countless hours with supportive people.”
Finally, he said, a senior technician was able to diagnose the problem: It was flooding. Unusually heavy winter snow, ice and spring rains disrupted the fiber optic box on his street, which connected Verner and his neighbors to the Internet.
Ironic, Verner focuses on disaster planning and infrastructure resilience at the Illinois Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab, where he leads the group responsible for protecting critical infrastructure. That includes the internet.
The global internet infrastructure was built in the 1980s and 1990s using systems and buildings in places designed to withstand the climate of the past. As Verner learned, the climate of the future is already disrupting the present.
“As the climate changes, we are putting emphasis on these systems in ways that have never been emphasized before,” he said. “There is more precipitation and flooding in areas that never flooded. That’s where the internet’s resilience is most susceptible, most vulnerable.”
Much of the internet hangs by a thread – fiberglass thread. A single cable can contain hundreds of glass or plastic wires and transmit terabytes of data to the cloud. But even though the cables are wrapped in protective sleeves, they can still be vulnerable to extreme weather.
Many people think of data as streams of ones and zeros that “magically travel across the sky,” Flynn said. But in reality, data goes “through a physical infrastructure”. Flynn said protecting vulnerable nodes on the Internet is a priority because we depend so much on the Internet for just about every aspect of our lives.
Today, an estimated 31 billion devices connect us to our data in the cloud. By 2025, that number is expected to reach 75 billion.
The redundancy of the internet makes it inherently resilient. If any part of the network goes down, data can be rerouted. But some nodes along the infrastructure that connect us to our information are potentially vulnerable. Some of these are “mission critical” or what Flynn called “lifeline” internet control systems.
He checked them off: water, electricity, telecommunications.
“We really need to make sure they can provide a certain level of essential function no matter what comes our way,” he said. “That’s a new way of thinking that we really need to embrace.”
A “Mission Critical” System at Seabrook
Natalie Hildt Treat, executive director of the Amesbury, Massachusetts-based C-10, said her group has already embraced the mindset, because it has to.
C-10 guards the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, just across the border in New Hampshire. This makes them “the only independent field surveillance network around a nuclear power plant,” Treat said.
The group has pioneered work to make the internet more resilient to climate change by focusing on the unique network of monitoring stations around the power plant.
C-10 was formed in the 1990s by civilian activists living within a 10-mile radius of the Seabrook plant.
In the past, volunteers drove to measurement sites and collected diskettes full of data measuring radiation, wind speed and direction. Such data could be critical during a nuclear disaster: During the Fukushima crisis, residents were evacuated to the path of the radiation because there was no independent method of tracking the wind.
Today, C-10 collects data in real time, from 18 secret locations, connected via the Internet.
“We need an uninterrupted power supply and internet to keep running,” explains Treat. “With the impact of climate change and more flooding and storms, it’s all the more important to have eyes and ears for factory safety.”
In October 2019, the day before Treat was scheduled to meet with state officials and ask for funds to climate-proof C-10’s monitoring network, a violent storm ravaged the coastline.
“We had one of these weather events with a cyclone and I believe six of our stations were shut down — some maybe for a few days until Mike was able to get them all up and running,” she said. “That was a wake-up call.”
The “Mike” she referred to is Michael Mansir, C-10’s network administrator, who recently pointed to a white dot on a computer at the heart of the organization’s network in Amesbury. The dot represents the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Surrounding it are 18 small circles – the C-10’s external measuring stations that measure beta and gamma rays and the wind.
Mansir said that maintaining communication and collecting the data is crucial to the mission.
“We’ve lost internet in several locations and I actually have two stations that went down last night that I need to fix,” he said. “I assume there is a network problem.”
C-10 seeks support from the state and local donors to make its detection network resilient to climate change. To show where it could be installed, Mansir entered an old factory building in Amesbury and climbed three flights of stairs, leading to one of the Seabrook monitoring stations.
“This might be an ideal location for the battery backup unit,” he said, approaching a door that opened onto the roof. He warned against getting too close to the eaves – “it’s a little scary here sometimes.”
An antenna was visible from the roof on Powwow Hill – the highest spot in the area.
“This is our radiation probe and above is our anemometer,’ he said, pointing to the instruments mounted on the roof.
C-10’s plan is to climate-proof the Seabrook monitoring stations using radio transmitters powered by solar panels and supported by batteries. The data would be sent wirelessly to the hilltop tower and back to headquarters.
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The solution was designed by David Theodore, co-founder of Cohasset-based Climate-proof internet.
“Someone had to solve this problem where the digital age meets the fury of climate change,” Theodore said. “It’s not even new technology.”
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, radio waves were used to carry telephone calls across the country, and Theodore was involved in setting up some early wireless Internet networks in Boston and Cambridge.
Theodore’s solution to make 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 the physical internet connections that could potentially disrupt climate change.
“If Boston lost internet and cloud access for weeks, there would be billions of dollars in losses, and it would be hard to get back from that,” he said.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy internet shut down in parts of lower Manhattan and Wall Street, and it took days to restore service to some sites. Hurricane Maria shut down parts of Puerto Rico’s internet for months.
Northeastern’s Stephen Flynn said we need to build the internet in the expectation that climate change will disrupt it.
“So in design you have the resources to essentially get it going again, and those are design things that we have the technical and scientific know-how to do,” he said. “However, the market hasn’t rewarded us with the investment to to do that.”
The Ministry of Energy Argonne National Lab partners with internet provider AT&T to use government supercomputers and climate change models to predict and map future internet vulnerabilities globally and locally. The first phase focuses on Ashburn, Virginia, where 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows.
“We are all vulnerable,” said Argonne’s Duane Verner. “We all need to think about how we can have backups in our own homes and build from there.”
We can hope for the best, but the rapidly changing climate requires us to prepare for the worst.