The Foresight Programme from the UK’s Government Office for Science produces in-depth studies looking at major issues 20-80 years in the future. It recently published its final project report on the International Dimensions of Climate Change (2011).
The report focuses on how international climate change, i.e. outside the UK, is likely to affect the country through its global dependencies. It concludes that the impacts of climate change overseas could be as important as the direct impacts within UK shores over the next few decades.
The report covers a wide range of aspects, one of which is infrastructure and within that, communications:
The report identifies a significant vulnerability from cloud computing and the increasing use of international data centres. As more data centres are needed and with the UK a relatively expensive location, more will be going offshore. But the report points out that data storage facilities have already suffered from flooding and cites the Vodafone data centre in Ikitelli, Turkey, which was affected by flash flooding in 2009, putting a quarter of the local network at risk.
In August 2009 the rainfall from Typhoon Morakot caused rivers to flood in Taiwan flushing large volumes of sediment into the ocean. This led to several submarine landslides which broke at least nine communications cables 4000m down and over 300km offshore. It disrupted the Internet and telecommunications between Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia.
The study also points out that over 95% of global communications traffic is handled by just one million kilometres of undersea fibre-optic cables. Rising sea levels increase the risk of flooding of coastal cable facilities and may also affect the stability of the seabed, making cables more vulnerable. Increased rainfall leading to higher levels of river sediment being delivered to the continental shelf, may also damage cables.
It makes worrying reading, particularly since it doesn’t include the direct impacts to the UK of things like increased rainfall and higher sea levels. There are also some more unexpected impacts. Caroline Spelman, the UK Environment Secretary, recently warned that a warmer climate will have an impact on wireless transmission, which is directly dependent on temperature. More wireless masts may be needed to cope, but tower structures themselves may also be impacted by flooding damage to foundations and storm damage to above-ground infrastructure.
And these are all the direct impacts on ICT capabilities. It doesn’t touch on the indirect impacts on finance and business or the foreign policy and security risks.
While we are all (with the apparent exception of the US Republican Party) fighting to try and minimise climate change, we’re already too far down the road to stop some of the inevitable impacts. The impacts listed in this report are worth bearing in mind in the cloud computing/green data centre debate.