Into the deep

Microsoft is under scrutiny over the experimental data centre it has established in the North Sea. Chioma Ibe considers the implications of the software giant’s actions.

Microsoft describes Project Natick as a research project investigating the numerous potential benefits that a standard, manufacturable, deployable under-sea data centre could provide to cloud users all over the world. 

Project Natick phase 2 is a vessel that contains the equivalent of several thousand high-end personal computers, with enough storage for five million films. It was deployed into the North Sea early in June 2018, at a location within the European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkney Islands. Natick phase 2 is intended to demonstrate that full-scale data centres can be economically manufactured and deployed underwater.

“According to Microsoft, having more data centres in water would help cut down the emission of greenhouse gases”

Experts believe the data centre will benefit the communications industry; it is projected that it will drastically reduce the distance data will have to travel between source and destination. Microsoft predicts that the placement of the centre in the marine area will not only be energy efficient but will also actually save energy, as the cooling of its computers do not require air conditioners or water consumption. According to Microsoft, this means that having more data centres in water would help cut down the emission of greenhouse gases. 

Despite these purported benefits, the deployment of Project Natick phase 2 has given rise to legal questions. Some of the questions that have been raised are:

  • What rights do Microsoft or other companies have to sink data centres into the oceans?
  • Would there be any energy in the form of heat, noise or light emissions entering the marine environment from the ‘data centre’, and if so, what could be the effect on the marine environment?
  • An artificial reef will develop; what will be the consideration for the eventual decommissioning of the data centre?
  • What will be the effect on the transport and fishing industries?

 

                

 

What rights do companies have to sink data centres into the oceans?

There are no laws that specifically regulate the sinking of data centres. Comparison can be drawn from the laying of submarine telecommunication cable; the first international legislation to regulate the laying of submarine cables was the 1884 International Convention for Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables.

The regulation of the data centre could equally fall under Section 3 of 1982’s UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which permits states and competent international organisations to deploy equipment and installations for scientific research. 

Given the absence of specific data centre regulation, the international law that allows the placing of offshore oil and gas facilities in water, and also the laying of underwater submarine communications cables, will be similar to that allowing the placing of a data centre in water.

The right to place equipment and facilities offshore within UK waters – be it territorial waters, continental seabed or exclusive economic zone – stems from a number of national and international laws, including the two aforementioned conventions as well as the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf (1958), the Geneva Convention on the High Seas (1958) and the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (1972). 

No company has a right to own a space in the sea for the placement of equipment or facilities – rather, coastal government grants permissions to companies or organisations to place equipment or facilities in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. The consent of coastal states is also required within areas of the continental shelf. Beyond these maritime zones, anyone can deploy a facility or lay a cable. For Project Natick to be deployed, Microsoft would have applied through the European Marine Energy Centre and been granted a marine licence issued by the Marine Scotland Licensing Operations Team.

Would there be ‘energy’ in the form of heat, noise or light emissions from the ‘data centre’? What could be the effect on the marine environment?

“The effect of underwater noise on marine life is not fully understood, as only a few tests have been done”

UNCLOS defines pollution of the marine environment as including the introduction of energy. According to the European Commission, ‘introduction of energy’ refers to light, electricity, heat, noise, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves or vibrations.

The effect of underwater noise on marine life is not fully understood, as only a few tests have been done in this area, but researchers believe that it can have an adverse effect. Additionally, cooling water systems can raise water temperature. Nevertheless, it is believed that the amount of heat that Natick will generate in water will not alter the ambience of the sea around the vessel. 

The fear is what will happen if the test run of Project Natick is successful, and such data centres proliferate as a consequence. Were this to be the case, marine ecology could be adversely affected. However, it has been claimed that the increase in temperature of the surrounding sea will be minimal – equivalent to just 1/2,000th of a degree downstream. 

The European Commission’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive (2011/92/EU) requires member states to do an assessment of the marine environment before carrying out a project, and also to monitor the project’s impact on the marine environment. Though the effects of these emissions might not be known at the moment, the international community has always taken a precautionary approach when it comes to matters of environmental law. Simply put, this means that, even when the effects are unknown and there is not yet any known scientific proof of an adverse effect, measures should be taken to prevent harm to the environment. 

An artificial reef will develop; what will be the considerations for the eventual decommissioning of the data centre? 

Once a facility is placed in the sea, organisms usually attach and build up around it. This has been seen a lot in the oil and gas industry, where areas around platforms have turned into artificial reefs.

Submarine cables often transcend different maritime zones. The data centres, on the other hand, are placed in waters quite close to shore – Natick phase 1 was placed 1km off the pacific coast of the United States. 

Additionally, the average oil and gas platform is enormous compared to the data centre – a meagre 40ft vessel. This means that removing the data centre from the water is unlikely to be as Herculean a task as removing a production platform. Production platforms also generate muds and cuttings, while the data centre will leave no residue in the sea. 

There will still, however, be disruption to the artificial reef that forms while the vessel is in the water. This will raise questions about any endangered or threatened coral and other species that are found on Natick when it’s being decommissioned – it may need to be moved or relocated. The decommissioned installation may even have to be left on the seabed.

What will be the effect on the transport and fishing industries?

The oil and gas industry, transportation industry, communications industry and fishing industry are all competing for use of ocean space. The fishing and transportation industries have, at different times, been at loggerheads with the oil and gas or communication industries. The problem usually arises in relation to the loss of fishing gear or obstruction of waterways due to the latter industries’ facilities. 

In the case of the data centre, the question is whether its closeness to shore would cause it to obstruct waterways or cause harm to fishing gears – both reasons why decommissioning of offshore platforms is an issue. 

Microsoft has stated that, at the end of the data centre’s life, it will be recycled. 

Chioma Ibe is a PhD candidate in international environmental law at Nottingham Law School, part of Nottingham Trent University

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