Could Animals Damage Deep-Sea Internet Cables?

posted: 10/27/15
by: Danny Clemens
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A New York Times report making its way across the web raises concerns about Russian submarines that are "aggressively operating" frighteningly close to important deep-sea fiber-optic cables that "carry almost all global Internet communications." In times of crisis, American officials fear, Russia could launch an attack on said cables, potentially disrupting Internet service and sending the West into crisis.

It's not uncommon for cables within the vast network to suffer damage from ship anchors and trawling operations. These damages, however, tend to occur in shallower depths closer to the shore, where repairs are relatively simple. The Russian submarines in question are trolling out in the open ocean at much deeper depths, where the cables rarely encounter human activity.

The cables, however, have one other constant companion: marine wildlife. In a case of mistaken identity, could a shark or an overzealous fish mistake the a cable for food and unknowingly throttle our Internet supply?

It might sound crazy, but it's a valid question. In a 2010 viral video, a shark tries to bite a chunk out of a stretch of submarine cable:

After investigating that incident, the International Cable Protection Committee officially called off the troops earlier this year. As it turns out, marine wildlife poses little to no threat to the deep-sea cables that put the "World Wide" in World Wide Web. According to the Committee, fish bites accounted for less than 1% of cable faults worldwide between 1959 and 2006. Since 2007, there have been "no cable faults attributable to sharks".

The first and only recorded instance of a shark noshing on a deep-sea cable took place in the mid-1980s. Crocodile sharks were able to bite through the polyethylene sheath of fiber-optic cable off of the Canary Islands. Cable designs were immediately refined in order to provide additional protection from hungry marine life.

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According to the ICPC, ship traffic and commercial fisheries pose a much bigger threat to the deep-sea cables. Nearly 75% of all cable faults have been attributed to ship anchoring activities, with "natural phenomena", cable component failure and unknown issues accounting for the remaining failures.


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