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.

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
buxtree/iStock via Getty Images

The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
yanikap/iStock via Getty Images

Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
rmbarricarte/iStock via Getty Images

As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
Eerik/iStock via Getty Images

The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
a_Taiga/iStock via Getty Images

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
jessicaphoto/iStock via Getty Images

The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
Serjio74/iStock via Getty Images

The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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