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EXPLORE NORTHEASTERN

Read the full article and listen to Stephen Flynn’s interview with Bruce Gellerman of WBUR.

Excerpt:

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 — puts access to our data at risk.

Urban planner Duane Verner learned just how vulnerable our data are in the climate-changing world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed his office in Lemont, Illinois, in March 2019, Verner was fortunate to already be working from home.

Unfortunately, what was not working was his internet connection.

“I had horrible issues with reliability with my own internet at my own house,” Verner recalled. “We spent countless hours with support 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.

Ironically, Verner deals with disaster planning and infrastructure resiliency at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab in Illinois, where he manages the group in charge of critical infrastructure protection. That includes the internet.

The global internet infrastructure was constructed in the 1980s and ’90s using systems and buildings in places that were designed to withstand the climate of the past. As Verner learned, the climate of the future is already disrupting the present.

As the climate is changing, we are stressing these systems in ways that have never been stressed before,” he said. “There is increased precipitation and flooding in areas that never used to flood. That’s where the resilience of the internet would be most susceptible, most vulnerable.”

Much of the internet hangs by a thread — fiber-optic thread. A single cable can include hundreds of glass or plastic threads and transmit terabytes of data to the cloud. But while the cables are wrapped in protective coverings, they can still be vulnerable to extreme weather.

Stephen Flynn, founding director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute, said a potential problem is accessing data during a weather disaster.

Many people think of data as streams of ones and zeros “traveling magically through the air,” Flynn said. But in reality data are “moving through a physical infrastructure.” Flynn said safeguarding vulnerable nodes on the internet is a priority because we’re so dependent on the internet for virtually every aspect of our lives.

Today, an estimated 31 billion devices link us to our data in the cloud. By 2025, it is predicted there will be 75 billion.

The internet’s redundancy makes it inherently resilient. If part of the network goes down, data can be rerouted. But some nodes along the infrastructure connecting us to our information are potentially vulnerable. Some of these are “mission critical,” or what Flynn called “lifeline” internet control systems.

He ticked them off: water, power, telecommunications.

“We really have to make sure that they’re able to provide some level of essential function no matter what comes our way,” he said. “That’s a new mindset we have to really embrace.”