ICT4SDG | Infrastructure | SDG13
July 1, 2014

Green cables for climate monitoring and disaster warning

By Chris Barnes

Continents are connected by information superhighways of fibre-optic submarine cables that span our oceans to provide the backbone of the global telecommunications system. The first submarine communication cable was deployed across the English Channel in 1850, and since, more than a million kilometres of cable have been laid on the ocean floor, covering a significant portion of the globe.

In recent years, the extraordinary breadth and capacity of this submarine network has motivated the initiation of an ambitious new project: that of equipping submarine communications cables with climate and hazard monitoring sensors to create a global real-time ocean observation network. Once laid, this network will be capable of providing earthquake and tsunami warnings as well as data on ocean climate change and circulation.

Submarine cables are uniquely positioned to glean key environmental data from the deep ocean, which at present provides scant few resources for monitoring the climate. Equipping cable repeaters – instruments that amplify optical signals – with climate and hazard-monitoring sensors would yield data of great value to climate science, disaster warning and the future of our oceans.

So well-received was the presentation of this proposal at the 1st ITU Green Standards Week in Rome in 2011 that the event closed with participants issuing a Call to Action to ITU/WMO/UNESCO-IOC to set the project in motion.

The following Green Standards Week in Paris hosted the first meeting of the ITU/WMO/UNESCO-IOC Joint Task Force on Green Cables Systems, a multi-disciplinary body united to realize the vision of a global network of ‘green cables’.

There was never any doubt that this project was feasible. What was required, however, was a coordinated international effort to mobilize the necessary political and business will to bring stakeholders together to determine their respective roles. Currently, the Joint Task Force organizes the various elements of its work under the banners of “Science, Engineering, Business and Law.”

Chief on our list of priorities is devising means for the private sector to drive sustainable growth of the envisaged submarine climate and hazard-monitoring network. A variety of stakeholders have contributions to make, but telecommunications companies are at the heart of the project, as they will own and manage the climate and hazard-monitoring infrastructure, becoming lead contributors to the advancement of climate science and disaster warning.

Telecommunications companies and cable manufacturers are the right custodians of this responsibility. They develop, install, operate and own submarine cables free of government influence. Driven by free-market incentives, these companies are experts in manufacturing and deploying highly reliable and efficient submarine cables designed to last at least 25 years. Many years of experience have led to their reliability, and it is essential that we capitalize on their tried-and-tested expertise.

The incorporation of climate and hazard-monitoring infrastructure with submarine cables should in no way compromise their ability to perform their primary function of transmitting enormous volumes of data across our oceans. Cable manufacturers are best-placed to build and install climate and hazard-monitoring sensors as an integral part of the production process. It is essential that cable system manufacturers engineer the installation of climate and hazard-monitoring sensors to fit the engineering of the repeater and its deployment environment.

With regard to the specifications of climate and hazard-monitoring sensors, it is necessary to keep them simple at this early stage to build confidence in the project. It is expected that temperature, pressure and acceleration sensors will comprise the primary sensors, with an acoustic modem or hydrophone considered secondarily, engineering permitting.

These two fundamental requirements – establishing the functional and engineering requirements of sensors, and solidifying the business case for cable manufacturers to lead the development of green cable systems – are the subjects of two ongoing studies commissioned by the Joint Task Force.

These studies are funded by FujitsuHuawei Marine Networks and Nexans; an excellent example of public-private partnership, with telecoms companies leading the charge towards green cables with the full support of the public sector.

The outcomes of these studies will see a minimum set of requirements established for climate-monitoring sensors. Manufacturers of sensors and cable repeaters are working together in this initiative, establishing scientifically rigorous objectives for the sensors while concurrently pinpointing their engineering requirements.

This set of requirements will feed into the international standardization work of ITU’s standardization arm (ITU-T). Standardization enables economies of scale, lowering costs for all, and it encourages widespread adoption of technologies as conformance with standards safeguards interoperability and compatibility.

Advocacy at the international level is another key part of the initiative. ITU, WMO and UNESCO-IOC are drawing on their global communities to build the goodwill required to promote lasting progress.

The project must also navigate UNCLOS, the international law of the sea, exploring the legal framework for dual-purpose telecom-marine data cables. We may also need to solicit donor funding for the initial, non-recurring costs of sensor prototype development.

These and the project’s many other considerations are the subjects of three ITU reports (2012) developed by members of the Joint Task Force (freely available to download). These reports expertly frame the key questions to be answered as we work towards our goal, providing a common understanding upon which to build forward momentum. Additional White Papers will be completed in 2014.

The project to equip submarine cables with climate and hazard-monitoring sensors may take some years to bring to fruition. While the Joint Task Force’s work is in its early stages, my colleague Rhett Butler has said, “the way forward is straightforward.” Building a formidable climate and hazard-monitoring network will be a gradual, progressive process, but ITU, WMO and UNESCO-IOC have taken the first bold steps towards the realization of this goal, and the journey is most certainly underway.

Increasing the visibility of the project is very important to me and my colleagues in the Joint Task Force. Many hands make light work, and we encourage you to contact us at greenstandard@itu.int to learn how you can contribute, as there is still much to be done.

Chris Barnes is Professor Emeritus in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, Canada. He was Director of NEPTUNE Canada (2001-2011), the world’s first regional cabled ocean observatory, subsequent to a decade as the University of Victoria’s Director of both the Centre of Earth and Ocean Research (1989-2000) and the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences (1991-2002). His research involves geology, micropaleontology, stratigraphy, paleoceanography, paleoclimatology and ocean observing systems. He has authored or co-authored over 190 publications and over 250 published conference abstracts.
More about Chris Barnes.

Photo by Samuel Zeller

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Green cables for climate monitoring and disaster warning

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