Melting Arctic Ice Might Mean Faster Internet for Some

The dwindling ice has an unexpected benefit: more underwater cables

northwest passage
In recent years, enough Arctic ice has melted to clear parts of the Northwest Passage for shipping traffic. Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory/Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership

For centuries, a clear route through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage was the stuff of dreams for explorers throughout North America. A direct route past the North Pole to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would provide all manner of opportunities for shipping and trade, but it wasn’t until Roald Amundsen’s 1903 expedition that sailors were first able to chart a path through the shifting Arctic ice. Now, as Aaron Frank reports for Motherboard, melting Arctic ice has opened up opportunities for a kind of connection between Europe and Asia that Amundsen never could have dreamed of: faster internet.

The internet might seem like an ethereal, invisible network that connects every laptop and smartphone on the planet, but in reality it is propped up by a very real, very large network of cables crisscrossing the ocean floor. For years, communications networks have relied on tens of thousands of fiber optic cables to establish connections between countries, with the shortest and most direct connections providing the fastest links to the internet. As the internet grew, so did this undersea network. But while crossing the Arctic Circle is the most direct path to lay cables to connect European and Asian networks, until recently Arctic ice has prevented installation.

“It is more viable for [companies] to propose these new and innovative routes than ever before,” Nicole Starosielski, a media, culture and communications researcher at New York University, tells Jeremy Hsu for Scientific American.

As these new pathways are opening up in the Arctic, communications companies are jumping on the chance to lay new cables. Right now, a ship commissioned by Quintillion Networks, a company based out of Anchorage, Alaska, is beginning to installation of undersea fiber optic cables, with the hopes of eventually laying the foundations for a direct connection between Tokyo and London, Kevin Baird reports for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The rapidly-melting ice is worrying to climate scientists for all kinds of reasons, including less habitat for ice-dwelling critters like polar bears, rising sea levels, and disruption to the ocean’s currents. But these plans to lay new networks in previously-inaccessible regions of the Arctic Circle mean that people living in remote areas will finally be able to connect to the internet, Baird reports. While much of the developed world has long had easy access to high-speed broadband internet, many people in small Arctic communities in Alaska and Canada still have to do with slow and expensive satellite connections.

“There are enormous possibilities for local businesses and individuals who want to stay in their village and make a living,” Tara Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a native Alaska company that represents the interests of Inupiat communities in the Arctic Slope region, tells Baird.

When the first stages of Quintillion’s plan are finished, people in remote Alaskan communities will not only have access to services like online classes and medical data, but will be able to do things that most people take for granted, like streaming movies and television shows through services like Netflix, Baird reports. While the environmental impact of the melting Arctic ice is significant, the changing face of the region could offer new opportunities to better the lives of some people who so far have been left behind by an increasingly connected world.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.