The Global Internet Is Being Attacked by Sharks, Google Confirms

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 15 2014 3:23 PM

The Global Internet Is Being Attacked by Sharks, Google Confirms

Shark bites undersea fiber-optic cable
Sharks' attraction to undersea fiber-optic cables has been well-documented over the years.

Screenshot / YouTube

The Internet is a series of tubes ... that are sometimes attacked by sharks.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Reports of sharks biting the undersea cables that zip our data around the world date to at least 1987. That’s when the New York Times reported that “sharks have shown an inexplicable taste for the new fiber-optic cables that are being strung along the ocean floor linking the United States, Europe, and Japan.”

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Now it seems Google is biting back. According to Network World’s Brandon Butler, a Google product manager explained at a recent event that the company has taken to wrapping its trans-Pacific underwater cables in Kevlar to guard against shark bites.

Google confirmed to me that its newest generation of undersea cables comes wrapped in special protective yarn and steel wire armor—and that the goal is to protect against cable cuts, including possible shark attacks. Here's an old video of what that looks like, in case you were wondering:

To digress for a moment, it’s not clear that the coating Google is using is actually Kevlar, per se. A little searching on Google’s own handy website reveals that the company actually holds a patent of its own for a material called “polyethylene protective yarn.”

It makes sense that Google would be investing in better ways to protect transoceanic data cables. Over the years there have been several instances in which damage to undersea lines resulted in widespread disruptions of Internet service. Dependable network infrastructure has become increasingly essential to Google’s business, which relies on ultra-fast transmissions of information between its data centers around the world.

On Monday, Google infrastructure czar Urs Holzle announced that the company is helping to build a new trans-Pacific cable system connecting the United States to Japan at speeds of up to 60 Tbps. “That’s about 10 million times faster than your cable modem,” Holzle noted. Google’s partners on the project include China Mobile and SingTel.

Why are sharks attracted to undersea data cables? Unclear. Several outlets have pointed out that sharks can sense electromagnetic fields, so perhaps they’re attracted by the current. Alternatively, a shark expert from Cal State-Long Beach suggested to Wired, they may just be curious. Anyone with a dual expertise in chondrichthyan behavior and electrical engineering is warmly invited to offer a more compelling explanation in the comments below.

Regardless, it’s clear their powerful bites can cause real problems. Popular Science dredged up a 2009 UN Environmental Program report that includes the following rather convincing background information:

Fish, including sharks, have a long history of biting cables as identified from teeth embedded in cable sheathings. Barracuda, shallow- and deep-water sharks and others have been identified as causes of cable failure. Bites tend to penetrate the cable insulation, allowing the power conductor to ground with seawater.

Forget Google vs. Apple, Google vs. Amazon, and Google vs. Facebook. My new favorite tech rivalry is Google vs. shark.

Previously in Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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