Global undersea communications cable infrastructure. (credit: Tyco Electronics Subsea Communications LLC)
The UH Aloha Cabled Observatory reuses a telecom cable to create the deepest ocean observatory

The global system of submarine telecommunications cables that supports our connected world is deaf, dumb and blind to the external ocean environment, and represents a major missed opportunity for tsunami warning and global climate monitoring, according to University of Hawaiʻi scientists and a United Nations task force.

“For an additional 5-10 percent of the total cost of any new cable system deployment, we could be saving lives from tsunamis and effectively monitoring global change,” said UH Mānoa’s Rhett Butler, director of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and chair of an international committee tasked to evaluate the cable opportunity.

Submarine telecommunication cables are the backbone of the internet. More than half a million miles of this remarkable fiber-optic cable already criss-cross the deep ocean, linking more than 2.7 billion users and supporting global business, finance, social media, entertainment and political expression.

Now researchers are making a scientific and societal case for “greening” any new cables proposed to be built in the future.

The new report, published in October 2014 by a joint task force of three U.N. agencies, parallels an engineering feasibility study and analyses of strategy and legal challenges.

By adding a relatively straightforward set of instrumentation – accelerometers, high-resolution pressure gauges and thermometers integrated into the cables’ optical repeaters, the enhanced telecom cables could answer many basic science needs, as well as help monitor the physical state-of-health of the cable system itself, researchers say.

“The undersea communication cable is an untapped platform for oceanographic sensors, one that could outstrip all other systems attempting to observe the deep oceans,” said Doug Luther, UH Mānoa professor of oceanography and another contributor to the report.

Read the UH Mānoa news release for the full story.

—By Talia Ogliore