In 1858, the first undersea cable linking North America to Europe was proven a success, even if Queen Victoria’s message to President James Buchanan celebrating the occasion took 16 hours to travel beneath the Atlantic. We’ve come a long way since then and now we have complicated fiber networks that traverse the ocean floor. The king of getting information from here to there, Google, employs glass fibers that use lasers to transmit data close to the speed of light.
But for all the high-tech wizardry that allows the super search engine to relay information at a gigabit per second, there remain some old-school problems with stringing cable along the bottom of sea: namely, sea life. More specifically, curious (and toothy) sharks.
As it turns out – much like rogue mice like in-wall wiring and pet bunnies have a thing for lamp cords — sharks have a taste for fiber-optic cables. The problem isn’t new, in fact it dates back to at least 1989 when The New York Times reported that sharks had been chomping on the new fiber-optic cables that were linking the world by way of the ocean floor. “In the Atlantic alone, shark bites have caused the failure of four segments of cable, which is the main artery for global voice and computer communications,” noted The Times. “A single bite on a deep-sea line, which is about the size of a garden hose, can cost $250,000 or more to fix.”
Given the pandemonium that might ensue were Google to go down thanks to teething sharks — and perhaps the more pressing concern of revenue loss and repair costs — Google doesn’t skimp on protecting its infrastructure. Network World reports that at a recent Google Cloud Roadshow event, Dan Belcher from Google spoke about the lengths the company goes to safeguard its materials, including wrapping trans-Pacific underwater cables in Kevlar to prevent against shark attacks.
And indeed, according to Google literature, the company's Google Fiber is protected by an outer layer, “made from a material like kevlar [sic].” Google confirmed to Slate.com 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.”
Curiously, they aren’t using Kevlar per se. Kevlar — a super-strong, manmade synthetic fiber commonly used in ballistic and stab-resistant body armor — is a proprietary product created and owned by DuPont. Google has apparently developed its own bulletproof, cut-resistant material. (Is there anything Google can’t do?) A patent filed by Google in 2003 describes, "improved, high strength polyethylene yarns useful in ballistic-resistant, cut-resistant and other applications." Other applications, we assume, means those in which shark-bite-resistance might prove beneficial.
But the looming question remains: Why are sharks gnawing on cables in the first place? While no one knows for sure, is it safe to assume that it’s more than just chew-toy appeal? Some media outlets have suggested that unlike old copper cables that don't emit noticeable electric fields, fiber-optic cables offer electric and magnetic fields that may be mistaken for prey. If that sounds fishy, an alternative idea suggested by Chris Lowe, a shark scientist from California State University, Long Beach, says that sharks may in fact just be curious, “If you had just a piece of plastic out there shaped like a cable, there’s a good chance they’d bite that too.”
See a shark go for a nibble of cable in the video below:
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