North-West Passage to get its first commercial cargo

I’ve got a fun feature in Eureka, the Times’s science and technology magazine, today. It’s about the worldwide subsea fibre-optic cable network, one of the biggest pieces of continuous engineering in the world. 98% of everything that appears in your browser has flashed through the deep sea, riding one of these cables. The story’s here.

In the meantime, here’s an update on how the melting Arctic is going to speed up our communications and make some people (even) richer…

Scores of British sailors froze to death searching for a way through the Northwest Passage, an elusive sea route through the Arctic that promised faster links between East and West. A course was eventually discovered a century ago, but the shallow, icy seas have never proved viable for shipping.

A different type of payload now looks likely to be the first to make the trip: raw information. Three projects are planning to lay fibre-optic cables through the Arctic in order to slash the time it takes to communicate between London and Tokyo.

Two groups – one Canadian and one from the US – are planning to snake through the Northwest Passage, while a Russian project will follow the Northern Sea Route across the top of Asia. Icebergs will threaten not only to the installation ships but also the cable itself as their bases scrape through shallow waters.

“It’s a very obvious development with the retreating sea ice, but there will still be a lot of technical issues. If you get a fault at the wrong time of the year you’re not going to be able to get to it, and then you’ve got a system that’s down for an awfully long time,” said Stuart Wilson of Global Marine Systems, a leading subsea engineering firm.

Cloud computing, gaming and communication applications such as Skype all demand as little delay as possible on the network, but the driver for the new ‘Ultra-Low Latency’ cable routes is from the financial sector. Many large funds use computers to make automatic trades based on market conditions, and the faster their connection the bigger the advantage they have.

For big hedge funds, every millisecond can translate to a hundred million dollars over the year, according to one estimate. Such figures are necessary to finance the new cables, whose cost will range from £400 million to over £750 million. None yet have all funding in place, but analysts say that Arctic Fibre, backed by the Canadian government, looks most likely to start construction first.

The pursuit of the shortest possible link has also spurred the first transatlantic cable project in a decade. Unlike all fibre-optic links before it, the Hibernian Express will brave the Grand Banks fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Fishing trawlers are far and away the greatest threat to cables, and to escape them the new installation will be buried for 1600 km.

Icebergs will threaten this link as well as those through the Arctic. Glaciers on the Greenland coast send chunks of ice across the Grand Banks, where they occasionally gouge their keels through the seabed.

“I fully expect over the lifetime of Hibernian Express it’ll be taken out by an iceberg at least once,” said Wilson, who is in charge of planning the route. “Even if a cable buried something that powerful is just going to wipe it out.”

The ice may challenge engineers, but once installed, it will protect the cable from fishing trawlers. Any break that did occur would barely interrupt normal service as data is re-routed along safer subsea pathways that already exist.

Currently it takes 194 milliseconds to get a signal from London to Tokyo and back. By going over the top of the world the journey can be more than halved.

About Frank Pope

The world's first dedicated Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London. View all posts by Frank Pope

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