The recent reduction in Arctic sea ice has led to the opening of the Northwest Passage for ships, without the need for an icebreaker. This may also mean you can view Lolcat pictures and bid on eBay faster than ever before.
The environment’s loss due to climate change is the internet’s gain, as fibre-optic cables will be laid on the Artic Ocean floor to reduce round-trip data transmission times between London and Tokyo from 230 to 168 milliseconds. The cables will stretch across the Atlantic and along the north coast of Canada before finally travelling round the Pacific Rim to Japan. They will constitute the longest fibre-optic cables ever laid, at 15,600 kilometres. Two cables will be laid along this route, while a third will skirt the north coast of Russia. Optical amplifiers will boost the signal every 50 to 100 kilometres.
So why do this? The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, while a 62 millisecond reduction may not make a huge difference to the timeliness of your Twitter posts, it will provide an important advantage to high-frequency stock traders, for whom a millisecond speed advantage in buying and selling shares can mean increased profits. Secondly, the two greatest dangers to ocean cables are fishing trawlers and ships’ anchors, neither of which is particularly common in the Arctic. A single dragged-anchor at Internet ‘choke points’ can cut several cables at once.
The Arctic conditions will still pose construction problems. Normal cable-laying ships are not polar ice rated. Therefore, suitable ships must be retrofitted to lay cable. In addition, icebergs can gouge the ocean floor, so the cable will be laid at depths of up to 600 metres in particularly iceberg-prone areas. An annual ice-free construction time of only six or seven weeks will also severely hamper the projects.
Despite these issues, the construction teams are confident. Their success will make the world just a little smaller.
Posted on Tuesday, 17th April, 2012