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In Hope To Quantify Carbon Emissions Of Internet, Miami Plays A Major Role


How carbon intensive is the internet? Some key research on that question is expected to take place in Miami, which is also at risk from sea-level rise due to climate change.

An estimated 9% of global electricity consumption goes towards information technology, which includes the internet. As the internet as a resource becomes more ubiquitous in the developing world, and the developed world alike, that number is projected to explode.

“By 2030 it's forecast to double, essentially. So it's closer to 20 percent,” said Mike Hazas, a professor of human computer interaction at Uppsala University in Sweden.

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The expected increase in the carbon footprint of the internet is leading researchers to explore ways to keep the internet as green as possible even as it expands.

For Hazas’ part, he studies the energy usage of massive data centers that function as the brains of the internet.

Now, researchers are poised, for the first time, to comprehensively study the carbon footprint of another main component of the global internet: The intricate series of underwater fiber optic cables keep the world connected.

If the data centers are the brains of the internet, the fiber optic cable network is the arteries that pump blood to the major organs.

Much of the first-of-its-kind research on the cables network is expected to take place in coastal cities like Miami, which are doubly at risk from sea-level rise due to climate change.

Looking at amap of global fiber optic cables, it’s not hard to see why. South Florida is one of the largest hubs of global internet traffic.

Map of underwater fiber optic cables. South Florida serves as one of the largest hubs of global internet traffic.
Map of underwater fiber optic cables. South Florida serves as one of the largest hubs of global internet traffic.

Hunter Vaughan is an Environmental Media Scholar at the University of Colorado, Boulder who is helping with the project, and he is the head of research that will be taking place in Miami.

“The way that these cables exist under the water is actually very much akin to Miami as sort of a cultural space in general,” said Vaughan. “It's geographically technically in the US, but in many ways it's far more a Latin American city, and for decades has been central to Latin American cultural circulations, finance, economic developments.”

Information sent between the U.S. and Latin America runs through Miami, but that also goes for information sent among Latin American countries. The top three data hubs that connect Latin America to the global internet run through Miami, he explained.

“For someone from Brazil to shoot an email to someone in Argentina, it's most likely going to go via Miami,” he said.

Vaughan and fellow researchers received a $200,000 “greening the internet” grant from the Internet Society Foundation in January to conduct the global research. The researchers plan to partner with major corporations and gather hard data on the carbon footprint of the global fiber optic cable system.

In the end, researchers also hope to publish a list of best practices for the industry, in order to keep the internet as green as possible, even as it continues to expand.

Tech companies in the 1990s and 2000s came up with the term "the cloud" as a "sleight of hand" that effectively made people think that the internet "exists off in some ether, where it’s not connected to reality," said Vaughan.

The imagery makes people think up in the air when they think of the internet, he said, when in reality they should be thinking down to the ocean floor, to the place where their research is focusing.

The final study is expected to be published in two years.

“We are starting it from the ground up. There haven't been any research studies published on this,” said Nicole Starosielski, a professor of media culture at New York University, who is also on the research team.

A long-term challenge with studying the global underwater fiber optic cables network is that “virtually all that infrastructure is private,” she said. The researchers have already identified two corporate partners — GlobeNet (which has offices in Miami) and NJFX (New Jersey Fiber Exchange) who will be collaborating with researchers in order to get the best possible data.

On a practical level, researchers are hoping to answer seemingly straightforward but elusive questions about the carbon footprint of the cable network: How energy intensive is it to run these cables that literally connect the world from the ocean floor? What’s the carbon cost of manufacturing these cables? And how fossil fuel intensive is it to send ships into the middle of the ocean to repair them when they get damaged — like by a shark bite or something?

Yes, that actually happens.

Shark attack on subcable.wmv

“I think it's really key that we understand how fossil fuel intensive any part of the internet is, because the internet is a critical infrastructure that supports the global economy, that supports most of our social life, especially in the current moment,” said Starosielski.”It's hard to understate the impact of the internet. And it's a huge consumer of electricity.”

According to Hazas, one of the biggest reasons for the growing carbon footprint of the internet is the sharp spike in streaming video over the last few years.

His research suggests that streaming a show on Netlix, say, uses about double the energy of watching that same show on broadcast television, assuming a standard sized television.

“It’s not just that people are streaming instead of watching broadcast television, it’s actually that they’re streaming on multiple devices and then multiple people are doing that in the same household,” said Hazas. “So basically we have a lot more streams going than we might have in the past. And that’s kind of contributed to the escalation.”

The more hard data we have behind the energy intensity of different parts of the internet, the more people can develop awareness of way they use it, said Hazas. Without harder, more robust data, it’s just harder for the average consumer to wrap their heads around the implications.

“You might say ‘That’s fine, given what people get out of it.’ And maybe it is fine — that’s something for society to debate,” said Hazas, of the carbon cost of increased streaming. “It’s currently unquestioned and it’s rising at an exponential rate. And that means it will just develop organically unless we debate it and do something about it.”

In Miami, the largest node for global internet traffic is located just two blocks from Biscayne Bay, at the NAP (Network Access Point) of the Americas building in downtown.

“Most of these places have to be pretty close to the coast, because the cables themselves are coming in from the ocean,” said researcher Vaughan.

That means that many of the global hubs for internet traffic are themselves at high risk for the long term impacts of sea level rise, doubling the implications of the research.

“For someone from Brazil to shoot an email to someone in Argentina, it's most likely going to go via Miami."
Hunter Vaughan, University of Colorado Boulder

Miami, said Vaughan, serves a particularly interesting role in the research. Not only is it a global internet hub, but by some measures it is the city most at risk of sea level rise globally. And it is also bordered by two marine ecosystems — Biscayne Bay and the Everglades — that could see some of the most immediate impacts of unchecked carbon emissions.

“I think in some ways it's like a canary in the coal mine for major wealthy coastal spaces that are not going to be able to deny the reality of accelerated climate change and the threats of sea level rise,” said Vaughan.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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