The data center industry’s contribution to global warming and climate change is well-known: Energy consumption by IT infrastructure is estimated at more than 3 percent of the world total, representing billions of tons of carbon and other particulates added to the atmosphere every year. And while the industry as a whole has gone a long way toward weaning itself off of fossil fuels in favor of renewable sources, the vast majority of its power continues to be derived from oil and coal. (To learn more about efforts to minimize data centers' impact on the environment, see How Lawmakers Are Pushing Data Centers in a Green Direction.)

But in the spirit of karmic justice, it seems that this state of affairs could be on the verge of visiting significant pain on the data industry as rising sea levels, mammoth storms and record heat take their toll on the very infrastructure that allows data to serve as a valuable commodity.

The Inter-Wet

A recent study by the universities of Oregon and Wisconsin-Madison estimates that upwards of 4,000 miles of land-based internet cable could become submerged due to rising sea levels within the next 15 years, while another 1,000 miles and perhaps 1,000 data centers could become threatened by frequent flooding. Much of this damage will occur fairly close to current coastlines, of course, which means the bulk of inland infrastructure will be spared. But the fact is that many of today’s data-driven commercial centers, such as New York, Miami and Seattle, will be hit particularly hard, as will companies like AT&T, Inteliquent and CenturyLink, which have greater exposure to these low-lying areas.

These estimates are based on the expected one-foot rise in sea levels by the early 2030s. Somewhat ironically, however, the damage will steadily diminish as the century progresses because less infrastructure is exposed beyond that level – even by the year 2100 when the world’s oceans are projected to be six feet higher than they are today.

But physical damage is not the only way climate change could affect data infrastructure. According to S&P Global Ratings, increased environmental risk will drive up the cost to build and maintain infrastructure going forward. This will be driven by two main factors. First, there is the direct damage from natural occurrences like hurricanes, floods and fires, which will not only drive up repair costs, but lead to higher insurance premiums across the board. And secondly, we can expect to see gradual environmental changes alter land use, employment, economic activity and other factors that support access to high-quality credit. So even if a given enterprise is fortunate enough to escape direct harm in a steadily warming environment, it will not be able to avoid the financial impact of a less stable economy.

Good Intentions

Even some of the efforts to combat the data center’s impact on the environment will impact the enterprise’s ability to maintain or expand infrastructure. According to Datacenter Dynamics, European governments are phasing out many of the common HFC refrigerants used in the chillers that keep data centers cool. This is having the twin effect of driving up the cost of new equipment that utilizes the replacement chemicals as well as the cost of HFC itself as organizations seek to stockpile it to help manage the transition. And in the end, it isn’t entirely clear that the new chemicals are all that eco-friendly. In order to rapidly degrade in the atmosphere, they must be highly “chemically reactive,” which is a fancy way of saying “flammable.” They are also highly toxic, so even if they don’t contribute to climate change, their overall impact on the environment is largely unknown.

All the while, the industry is forging ahead with edge computing to service the emerging internet of things (IoT), even though few planners seem to be giving much thought to hardening these structures against increasingly threatening environmental conditions. Data Aire’s Scott Hacker notes that critical services supporting autonomous cars, health care and energy supply rely on steady, uninterrupted access to local data, but how is a city like Phoenix, Arizona, supposed to ensure the integrity of micro data centers and other edge infrastructure when temperatures are already pushing 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer? These facilities will become even more difficult, and expensive, to maintain as their data components become increasingly dense, with cooling loads up to 50 kW per rack not out of the question. (Consolidating your data can be a good way to decrease its environmental impact. Learn more in 5 Reasons Your Company Should Consolidate Its Data Center.)

Environmental gloom and doom is nothing new, of course. As economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner pointed out in “SuperFreakonomics,” their followup to the widely popular “Freakonomics,” city leaders around the world were once afraid that their streets would be submerged under piles of manure from all the draft animals bringing food to growing populations. Then along came the internal combustion engine that could do the work of hundreds of horses, and the only waste was a little smoke that blew away in the wind…

For all we know, then, the solution to our current environmental problem is just around the corner, either in the form of a new energy source, a new kind of infrastructure or something completely unexpected. And if past is prologue, the person who commercializes this solution will become very rich, the world will breathe a collective sigh of relief, and then a new set of problems will arise as it is rolled out on a global scale.

But at least our data infrastructure will be dry… maybe.