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10 Facts About the Internet's Undersea Cables

In describing the system of wires that comprises the Internet, Neal Stephenson once compared the earth to a computer motherboard. From telephone poles suspending bundles of cable to signs posted warning of buried fiber optic lines, we are surrounded by evidence that at a basic level, the Internet is really just a spaghetti-work of really long wires. But what we see is just a small part of the physical makeup of the net. The rest of it can be found in the coldest depths of the ocean. Here are 10 things you might not know about the Internet’s system of undersea cables.

1. CABLE INSTALLATION IS SLOW, TEDIOUS, EXPENSIVE WORK.

Reuters/Landov

Ninety-nine percent of international data is transmitted by wires at the bottom of the ocean called submarine communications cables. In total, they are hundreds of thousands of miles long and can be as deep as Everest Is tall. The cables are installed by special boats called cable-layers. It’s more than a matter of dropping wires with anvils attached to them—the cables must generally be run across flat surfaces of the ocean floor, and care is taken to avoid coral reefs, sunken ships, fish beds, and other ecological habitats and general obstructions. The diameter of a shallow water cable is about the same as a soda can, while deep water cables are much thinner—about the size of a Magic Marker. The size difference is related to simple vulnerability—there’s not much going on 8000 feet below sea level; consequently, there’s less need for galvanized shielding wire. Cables located at shallow depths are buried beneath the ocean floor using high pressure water jets. Though per-mile prices for installation change depending on total length and destination, running a cable across the ocean invariably costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

2. SHARKS ARE TRYING TO EAT THE INTERNET.

There’s disagreement as to why, exactly, sharks like gnawing on submarine communications cables. Maybe it has something to do with electromagnetic fields. Maybe they’re just curious. Maybe they’re trying to disrupt our communications infrastructure before mounting a land-based assault. (My theory.) The point remains that sharks are chewing on the Internet, and sometimes damage it. In response, companies such as Google are shielding their cables in shark-proof wire wrappers.

3. THE INTERNET IS AS VULNERABLE UNDERWATER AS IT IS UNDERGROUND.

It seems like every couple of years, some well-meaning construction worker puts his bulldozer in gear and kills Netflix for the whole continent. While the ocean is free of construction equipment that might otherwise combine to form Devastator, there are many ongoing aquatic threats to the submarine cables. Sharks aside, the Internet is ever at risk of being disrupted by boat anchors, trawling by fishing vessels, and natural disasters. A Toronto-based company has proposed running a cable through the Arctic that connects Tokyo and London. This was previously considered impossible, but climate change and the melting ice caps have moved the proposal firmly into the doable-but-really-expensive category.

4. CONNECTING THE WORLD THROUGH UNDERSEA CABLES ISN'T EXACTLY NEW.

In 1854, installation began on the first transatlantic telegraph cable, which connected Newfoundland and Ireland. Four years later the first transmission was sent, reading: “Laws, Whitehouse received five minutes signal. Coil signals too weak to relay. Try drive slow and regular. I have put intermediate pulley. Reply by coils.” This is, admittedly, not very inspiring. (“Whitehouse” referred to Wildman Whitehouse, the chief electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, who we’ve discussed previously.) For historical context: During those four years of cable construction, Charles Dickens was still writing novels; Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass; a small settlement called Dallas was formally incorporated in Texas; and Abraham Lincoln, candidate for the U.S. Senate, gave his “House Divided” speech.

5. SPIES LOVE UNDERWATER CABLES.

During the height of the Cold War, the USSR often transmitted weakly encoded messages between two of its major naval bases. Strong encryption was a bother—and also overkill—thought Soviet officers, as the bases were directly linked by an undersea cable located in sensor-laden Soviet territorial waters. No way would the Americans risk World War III by trying to somehow access and tap that cable. They didn’t count on the U.S.S. Halibut, a specially fitted submarine capable of slipping by Soviet defenses. The American submarine found the cable and installed a giant wiretap, returning monthly to gather the transmissions it had recorded. This operation, called IVY BELLS, was later compromised by a former NSA analyst named Ronald Pelton, who sold information on the mission to the Soviets. Today, tapping submarine communications cables is standard operating procedure for spy agencies.

6. GOVERNMENTS ARE TURNING TO SUBMARINE CABLES TO AVOID SAID SPIES.

With respect to electronic espionage, one big advantage held by the United States is the key role its scientists, engineers, and corporations played in inventing and building large parts of the global telecommunications infrastructure. Major lines of data tend to cross into American borders and territorial water, making wiretapping a breeze, relatively speaking. When documents stolen by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden came to light, many countries were outraged to learn the extent to which American spy agencies were intercepting foreign data. As a result, some countries are reconsidering the infrastructure of the Internet itself. Brazil, for example, has launched a project to build a submarine communications cable to Portugal that not only bypasses the United States entirely, but also specifically excludes U.S. companies from involvement.

7. SUBMARINE COMMUNICATIONS CABLES ARE FASTER AND CHEAPER THAN SATELLITES.

There are well over a thousand satellites in orbit, we’re landing probes on comets, and we’re planning missions to Mars. We’re living in the future! It just seems self-evident that space would be a better way to virtually “wire” the Internet than our current method of running really long cables-slash-shark-buffets along the ocean floor. Surely satellites would be better than a technology invented before the invention of the telephone—right? As it turns out, no. (Or at least, not yet.) Though fiber optic cables and communications satellites were both developed in the 1960s, satellites have a two-fold problem: latency and bit loss. Sending and receiving signals to and from space takes time. Meanwhile, researchers have developed optical fibers that can transmit information at 99.7 percent the speed of light. For an idea of what the Internet would be like without undersea cables, visit Antarctica, the only continent without a physical connection to the net. The continent relies on satellites, and bandwidth is at a premium, which is no small problem when one considers the important, data-intensive climate research underway. Today, Antarctic research stations produce more data than they can transmit through space.

8. FORGET CYBER-WARFARE—TO REALLY CRIPPLE THE INTERNET, YOU NEED SCUBA GEAR AND A PAIRE OF WIRE CUTTERS.

The good news is that it’s hard to cut through a submarine communications cable, if only because of the thousands of very lethal volts running through each of them. The bad news is that it is possible, as seen in Egypt in 2013. There, just north of Alexandria, men in wetsuits were apprehended having intentionally cut through the South-East-Asia-Middle-East-West-Europe 4 cable, which runs 12,500 miles and connects three continents. Internet speeds in Egypt were crippled by 60 percent until the line could be repaired.

9. UNDERWATER CABLES ARE NOT EASY TO REPAIR, BUT AFTER 150 YEARS, WE'VE LEARNED A TRICK OR TWO.

If you think replacing that one Ethernet cable you can’t quite reach behind your desk is a pain, try replacing a solid, broken garden hose at the bottom of the ocean. When a submarine cable is damaged, special repair ships are dispatched. If the cable is located in shallow waters, robots are deployed to grab the cable and haul it to the surface. If the cable is in deep waters (6500 feet or greater), the ships lower specially designed grapnels that grab onto the cable and hoist it up for mending. To make things easier, grapnels sometimes cut the damaged cable in two, and repair ships raise each end separately for patching above the water.

10. THE INTERNET'S UNDERSEA BACKBONE IS BUILT TO LAST FOR 25 YEARS.

As of 2014, there are 285 communications cables at the bottom of the ocean, and 22 of them are not yet in use. These are called "dark cables." (Once they’re switched on, they’re said to be “lit.”) Submarine cables have a life expectancy of 25 years, during which time they are considered economically viable from a capacity standpoint. Over the last decade, however, global data consumption has exploded. In 2013, Internet traffic was 5 gigabytes per capita; this number is expected to reach 14 gigabytes per capita by 2018. Such an increase would obviously pose a capacity problem and require more frequent cable upgrades. However, new techniques in phase modulation and improvements in submarine line terminal equipment (SLTE) have boosted capacity in some places by as much as 8000 percent. The wires we have are more than ready for the traffic to come.

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Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Space
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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