Improving the Underwater Cables That Connect Our Planet

Written by on November 3, 2014 in Technology

More than 2.7 billion users around the globe are connected by more than half a million miles of submarine telecommunication cables that already run across the deep ocean. These fiber-optic cables support a wide range of uses, from entertainment to political expression.

The cable laying ship René Descartes, operated by Orange Marine. Photo credit: France Telecom Marine Rene Descartes, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The cable laying ship René Descartes, operated by Orange Marine. Photo credit: France Telecom Marine Rene Descartes, CC BY-SA 3.0.

While vital to the internet we have come to depend on, the global system of submarine telecommunication cables is “deaf, dumb, and blind to the external ocean environment,” representing a “major missed opportunity” for large-scale climate monitoring and tsunami warnings, according to a United Nations (UN) task force and scientists from University of Hawaiʻi (UH) at Mānoa. That’s why researchers are building a case for “greening” any future cables in a new report released last month.

“For an additional 5-10 percent of the total cost of any new cable system deployment, we could be saving lives from tsunamis and effectively monitoring global change,” UH Mānoa’s Rhett Butler, Director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and chair of an international committee tasked to evaluate the cable opportunity, explained in a news release.

The report, published in October 2014 by the UN task force, found that adding a “relatively straightforward set of instrumentation” (including things like pressure gauges and thermometers) would not only benefit science and safety, but would also help monitor the state of the cable system itself.

“The undersea communication cable is an untapped platform for oceanographic sensors, one that could outstrip all other systems attempting to observe the deep oceans,” said Doug Luther, UH Mānoa professor of oceanography and contributor to the report.

New instruments on the cables could provide researchers with more accurate and possibly more advanced notice of earthquakes and their tsunami-generating potential, while improving our understanding of ocean circulation, sea level rise, and other global climate change factors.

“In the coming quarter century, all of the world’s cable systems will be replaced,” Butler said. “Missing this opportunity to begin integrating sensors would be an irreparable loss to our descendants.”

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Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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