Environment

How nuclear bunkers could save the internet: 'An appropriate metaphor for the climate crisis'

Existing underground bunkers could provide the answer to heat-related internet outages

a coastline and the sea

SVG-1 Rennesøy

In the sweltering heat of July 2022, NHS staff scrambled to find a hose tap. Modern hospitals run on data, and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust is no different. But as temperatures reached unprecedented highs, the trust’s server rooms were on the brink of buckling. 

Ageing, poorly positioned air conditioning units couldn’t cope with the heat. Staff planned to hose down the data centre’s cooling units, but they couldn’t find connectors and water supplies. The servers failed. Staff switched to pencils and notepads, bringing stress and chaos. 

With data unavailable, appointments were delayed: one patient had to defer their organ transplant. The outage cost the trust £1.4 million, and it took six weeks to fully restore access. 

Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this winter by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors

The trust wasn’t the only one to face heat-related outages. Tech giants Oracle and Google had to shut down their data centres in London; cooling systems failed at Loughborough University. Across the country, infrastructure designed for milder weather proved unready for extreme heat. Fires broke out, lives were lost and roads melted. When the next heatwave comes, data centres could be at risk again, putting strain on vital services. 

Data centres must be kept at precise temperatures to function properly, requiring large amounts of energy and water. A small change can offset the balance. While servers are designed with efficiency in mind, resilience against extreme weather can be overlooked. Many servers are placed underground, putting them at risk of flooding. 

The UK has a significant data centre industry, supported by its proximity to Europe and its usually mild climate. In 2022, The National Grid ESO estimated there are 400-600 known data centres operating in the UK. But how many of them are prepared for the climate crisis? 

In the side of a Norwegian mountain, 500 miles from London, cold concrete basks in ethereal server light. This is SVG-1 Rennesøy, a disused Nato munitions bunker converted into a data centre. Cooled by renewable hydropower, the site was originally designed to withstand nuclear blasts and natural disasters. 

And it isn’t alone. From Paris to Kent, disused bunkers are given new life as data centres. They are typically touted for their security, a key concern for companies looking to protect private data. However, they may also have potential for climate resilience. Designed for one looming apocalypse, abandoned bunkers could provide a haven for the world’s data centres. 

In 2020, Microsoft trialled a UDC off the Orkney Islands, claiming it was eight times more reliable than on-land centres. Since then, China has launched its first underwater data centre (UDC) off the coast of tropical island Hainan. The centre will cool itself using ocean water, which China Daily reports could save 30,000 cubic meters of water per megawatt each year.   

Meanwhile, at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, researchers argue that servers don’t need to be cool at all. They suggest that 56% of cooling costs could be saved by keeping centres at 41°C rather than 21°C. In theory, high temperatures may make centres more resilient to heatwaves. The precise temperature range, though, could still be upset by temperature fluctuations. 

Nestled beneath the ground, data centres sit out of sight and out of mind. But modern crises reveal the reality behind our screens. It’s an appropriate metaphor for the climate crisis, the impacts of which are too readily obscured by distance, political noise or greenwashing. Extreme weather can expose structural weaknesses and fault lines in infrastructure designed for a cooler planet. 

More fundamentally, it can reveal cultural blind spots. The outages of 2022 should serve as a reminder that the climate crisis touches everything, even the internet.  

Since the heatwave, Loughborough University has modernised its data centres to offer greater resilience. Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust has pledged to review its data centres and equipment. Others should follow suit. Centres across the globe aim to achieve carbon neutrality, but physical protection against extreme weather has received less attention. Infrastructure must be updated, drawing on the ingenuity of the world’s top scientists and architects. 

There is a need to redefine our relationships with our planet on a global scale. The internet reminds us of our connections, but we should prioritise our ties to the natural world. If not, the next heatwave could bring far worse than blank screens.  

Chris Poole is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
West Sussex floods: 'Deadly' flooding is getting worse with climate change. We must prepare for the new norm
flooding climate change
Environment

West Sussex floods: 'Deadly' flooding is getting worse with climate change. We must prepare for the new norm

Sunak's government slammed for 'protecting' frequent flyers amid calls for a new green tax
Environment

Sunak's government slammed for 'protecting' frequent flyers amid calls for a new green tax

Calls to nationalise Thames Water as Brits face 40% increase in bills: 'A con and a disgrace'
Water bills

Calls to nationalise Thames Water as Brits face 40% increase in bills: 'A con and a disgrace'

Repair Week 2024: There's a simple way to save over £450 per year – start fixing stuff
man fixing computer motherboard with screwdriver for Repair Week 2022
Repair week

Repair Week 2024: There's a simple way to save over £450 per year – start fixing stuff

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know