The cloud’s heavy toll on natural resources
Aug 22, 2023

The cloud’s heavy toll on natural resources

More and more of our digital lives is stored in the dense global network of data centers. As demand for cloud storage and computing grows, so do water consumption and other environmental impacts.

The thing we call “the cloud” might sound harmless, but that seemingly abstract place where the details of your digital life are stored takes a heavy toll on the environment.

No, this cloud isn’t floating in the air. It’s millions of individual computer servers running in thousands of data warehouses around the world. And we’re outsourcing more of our data storage and everyday computing there all the time.

If those servers fail, you might lose access to your emails, your precious photos or that presentation you’re editing with colleagues in real time. To prevent that from happening, the servers have to run 24/7, which takes a lot of power and other resources too.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, a postdoctoral researcher in the Fixing Futures training group at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, about his research on cloud data centers and their effect on the health of the planet.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate: The cloud is a metaphor. What we’re really referring to is a vast set of infrastructures that are mostly based on the ground and are threaded through the ocean in fiber-optic cables and an undersea network of cables. Satellites and cellular towers are supplementary to that, but the primary signal traffic is still happening on the ground and under the ocean. If we use the metaphor of a cloud, we don’t think of clouds as something that is polluting. In fact, clouds are a symbol of nature. They’re a symbol of a world in balance, not a world that is tipping out of balance.

Lily Jamali: Cloud data facilities have very real environmental impacts. Can you talk about their large carbon footprint? Is there a way to quantify it globally?

Gonzalez Monserrate: The electricity consumed by data centers contributes a significant carbon footprint. For data centers specifically, it’s something like 0.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. But if you extend that to include everything that the internet touches, including devices, all the transmitters and internet exchange centers, so everything that is the cloud, it’s about 2% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is roughly the equivalent of the airline industry.

Jamali: These data centers are filled with servers that are running all the time, which of course generates a lot of heat. Using air conditioning to cool things down can be very energy-intensive, so some companies are looking to water instead. Can you explain that?

Gonzalez Monserrate: Even though the data storage industry has grown significantly over the last six years, the amount of electricity they are consuming and the amount of carbon emissions they have been producing has kind of leveled out. It still has been increasing, but not with an exponential margin. One of the ways they were able to achieve that is by turning to water as a cooling agent. They pipe water through the data center, and the water collects up the heat and draws it away from computers. On average, a single data center can consume anywhere from 3 to 10 million gallons of water per day. Those numbers are not exact, and they can’t be. Part of the reason is because of this atmosphere of secrecy that has been around water use in the industry. They have framed it as a trade secret and until recently, many of these tech companies, including Google, were not actually telling us how much water they used. It was privileged information. That is changing now. Google is trying to be a little bit more transparent, and some other companies are following suit. What we can say for certain is that the water issue is not going away, it’s only going to increase. About 20% of the data centers in the United States are located in watersheds that are vulnerable, that are either in active drought or in a severe state of water stress.

Jamali: You spent some time studying the communities surrounding data centers in places with vulnerable watersheds, like Arizona. What did you hear from people living near these facilities? Are they concerned about things like water use and carbon emissions?

Gonzalez Monserrate: It was a really interesting experience doing this ethnographic research in Arizona. There are actually a lot of people who have been organizing in their communities against the data centers. Water is an issue that is on the minds of a lot of those folks. There are also communities in, say, Valencia, New Mexico, who are organizing against the data centers because the farmers are competing with the server farms for water. The farmers are actually having a lot of issues just getting the water that they need to grow food. Meanwhile, these data centers in those communities are consuming so much water that it’s causing a huge strain. So yes, there were a lot of folks who were concerned about this and about the future of the valley in Arizona and how data centers fit into this, especially as more and more are being constructed. We’re looking at an area that’s facing a historic drought the likes of which has not been seen for hundreds, if not thousands of years, by some measures. When we’ve talked about climate change, we also have to remember that in addition to greenhouse gas emissions, desertification is one of the key drivers of climate change, as the United Nations IPCC report outlined.

Jamali: As you’ve been sharing some of this, I’ve been thinking about all of my photo outtakes and silly tweets from 12 or 13 years ago that are stored in the cloud, and thinking about whether we really need all that junk. I don’t see how I’m going to get rid of all of that, and it’s probably just going to stay in the cloud in perpetuity. There must be some alternatives to these huge cloud data centers, right?

Gonzalez Monserrate: Your question really gets to one of the major paradoxes of the cloud. This infrastructure and the servers have to be disposed of every two to three years. Digital information is actually not very durable, and in fact, most of the solid-state drives that we possess like our computers and our phones, those drives will start to experience information degradation within a decade. Part of the unsustainability of the cloud is not only the energy and the water, but also the stuff — the materials, the metals, all this stuff that makes up the information ecologies. The cloud is an information storage system, but it’s also remote computational power that we outsource to computers that are far away from us to, for example, make an AI-generated image of ourselves in anime style.

Jamali: This is really important stuff, right?

Gonzalez Monserrate: Right? But then the flip side of that is storage, and I think we don’t have a lot of alternatives on the horizon for doing the computational work more efficiently, but we do have a lot of alternatives on the horizon for storing information more efficiently. Some of them are molecular-based, so using synthetic DNA as a medium for information storage, with life itself being a proof of concept that molecules can store information. That kind of information ecology based on molecules is being explored by private industry but also by artists and engineers who are finding ways to encode information into living tissues, so an internet of plants, if you will. So, there are alternatives on the horizon. There are emerging technologies that we could use that would significantly reduce the energy consumption of our digital activity.

More on this

When it comes to “doing the numbers” on Big Tech’s energy use in all of those data centers, some companies are more transparent than others. Critics consider Amazon one of the cagier players.

But last week, reporters at Insider shed some light on Amazon’s energy use after they reviewed permits the tech giant filed to build more data centers in Virginia.

According to the Insider article, with the addition of new data centers, the power footprint for Amazon’s northern Virginia portfolio will amount to at least 2.7 gigawatts. That’s 35% more than the entire power grid of the company’s hometown of Seattle.

That number is an estimate that Amazon disputes, according to the comment the company provided to Insider reporters. Amazon says 90% of the electricity it consumed last year was attributable to renewable sources.

For more on the energy and environmental costs of cloud data centers, check out the piece Steven Gonzalez Monserrate wrote for Wired last fall.

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