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.

Arrokoth, the Farthest, Oldest Solar System Object Ever Studied, Could Reveal the Origins of Planets

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A trip to the most remote part of our solar system has revealed some surprising insights into the formation of our own planet. Three new studies based on data gathered on NASA's flyby of Arrokoth—the farthest object in the solar system from Earth and the oldest body ever studied—is giving researchers a better idea of how the building blocks of planets were formed, what Arrokoth's surface is made of, and why it looks like a giant circus peanut.

Arrokoth is a 21-mile-wide space object that formed roughly 4 billion years ago. Located past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, it's received much less abuse than other primordial bodies that sit in asteroid belts or closer to the sun. "[The objects] that form there have basically been unperturbed since the beginning of the solar system," William McKinnon, lead author of one of the studies, said at a news briefing.

That means, despite its age, Arrokoth doesn't look much different today than when it first came into being billions of years ago, making it the perfect tool for studying the origins of planets.

In 2019, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons performed a flyby of Arrokoth on the edge of the solar system 4 billion miles away from Earth. The probe captured a binary object consisting of two connected lobes that were once separate fragments. In their paper, McKinnon and colleagues explain that Arrokoth "is the product of a gentle, low-speed merger in the early solar system."

Prior to these new findings, there were two competing theories into how the solid building blocks of planets, or planetesimals, form. The first theory is called hierarchical accretion, and it states that planetesimals are created when two separate parts of a nebula—the cloud of gas and space dust born from a dying star—crash into one another.

The latest observations of Arrokoth support the second theory: Instead of a sudden, violent collision, planetesimals form when gases and particles in a nebula gradually amass to the point where they become too dense to withstand their own gravity. Nearby components meld together gradually, and a planetesimal is born. "All these particles are falling toward the center, then whoosh, they make a big planetesimal. Maybe 10, 20, 30, 100 kilometers across," said McKinnon, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. This type of cloud collapse typically results in binary shapes rather than smooth spheroids, hence Arrokoth's peanut-like silhouette.

If this is the origin of Arrokoth, it was likely the origin of other planetesimals, including those that assembled Earth. "This is how planetesimal formation took place across the Kuiper Belt, and quite possibly across the solar system," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said at the briefing.

The package of studies, published in the journal Science, also includes findings on the look and substance of Arrokoth. In their paper, Northern Arizona University planetary scientist Will Grundy and colleagues reveal that the surface of the body is covered in "ultrared" matter so thermodynamically unstable that it can't exist at higher temperatures closer to the sun.

The ultrared color is a sign of the presence of organic substances, namely methanol ice. Grundy and colleagues speculate that the frozen alcohol may be the product of water and methane ice reacting with cosmic rays. New Horizons didn't detect any water on the body, but the researchers say its possible that H2O was present but hidden from view. Other unidentified organic compounds were also found on Arrokoth.

New Horizon's flyby of Pluto and Arrokoth took place over the course of a few days. To gain a further understanding of how the object formed and what it's made of, researchers need to find a way to send a probe to the Kuiper Belt for a longer length of time, perhaps by locking it into the orbit of a larger body. Such a mission could tell us even more about the infancy of the solar system and the composition of our planetary neighborhood's outer limits.

The Moon Will Make Mars Disappear Next Week

Take a break from stargazing to watch the moon swallow Mars on February 18.
Take a break from stargazing to watch the moon swallow Mars on February 18.
Pitris/iStock via Getty Images

On Tuesday, February 18, the moon will float right in front of Mars, completely obscuring it from view.

The moon covers Mars relatively often—according to Sky & Telescope, it will happen five times this year alone—but we don’t always get to see it from Earth. Next week, however, residents of North America can look up to see what’s called a lunar occultation in action. The moon's orbit will bring it between Earth and Mars, allowing the moon to "swallow" the Red Planet over the course of 14 seconds. Mars will stay hidden for just under 90 minutes, and then reemerge from behind the moon.

Depending on where you live, you might have to set your alarm quite a bit earlier than you usually do in order to catch the show. In general, people in eastern parts of the country will see Mars disappear a little later; in Phoenix, for example, it’ll happen at 4:37:27 a.m., Chicagoans can watch it at 6:07:10 a.m., and New Yorkers might even already be awake when the moon swallows Mars at 7:36:37 a.m.

If you can’t help but hit the snooze button, you can skip the disappearing act (also called immersion) and wait for Mars to reappear on the other side of the moon (called emersion). Emersion times vary based on location, too, but they’re around an hour and a half later than immersion times on average. You can check the specific times for hundreds of cities across the country here [PDF].

Since it takes only 14 seconds for Mars to fully vanish (or reemerge), punctuality is a necessity—and so is optical aid. Mars won’t be bright enough for you to see it with your naked eye, so Sky & Telescope recommends looking skyward through binoculars or a telescope.

Thinking of holding an early-morning viewing party on Tuesday? Here are 10 riveting facts about Mars that you can use to impress your guests.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

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