The disruption to the Svalbard Undersea Cable System (SUCS) took place between 130km and 230km from its landing station on Svalbard, with media quick to speculate about potential foul play
Disruption to submarine cables systems is a fairly common occurrence, with cables potentially being damaged by everything from undersea tremors to trailing anchors from vessels above them. The cause of these interruptions is usually quickly identifiable, with submarine cable operators using various methods to closely monitor potential dangers to their subsea assets.
On Monday, Space Norway, the operator of the world’s most northern submarine cable, the SUCS, announced that one of the system’s two cables had been damaged and taken out of order as a result of an unknown incident.
The event reportedly took place on January 7 but was only announced by Space Norway on the January 10.
According to the statement from Space Norway, the incident took place between 130 to 230km from its landing station in Longyearbyen, on Svalbard. In this part of the Greenland Sea, the seabed rapidly descends from 300m in depth to around 2,700m.
The nature of the damage is unclear, with Space Norway saying the incident is being investigated. A cable-repair vessel will be required to fix the damaged portion of the cable.
The SUCS cable system itself comprises two near-parallel cables, which span 1,375km and 1,339km, respectively, linking Andoeya on the Norwegian mainland to Longyearbyen on the Svalbard archipelago. The cables help provide broadband connectivity to the islands’ roughly 3,000 inhabitants, as well as connecting the Svalbard Satellite Station (SvalSat), a site that contains over 100 satellite antennas and is crucial to downloading data from polar-orbiting satellites.
The second cable of the SUCS continues to function normally, though Space Norway notes that it is now operating at maximum capacity. If this cable were also to fail, the islands of Svalbard would be effectively cut off from communicating with mainland Norway.
So, while this cable’s mysterious interruption is concerning, it is no catastrophe – at least for now.
However, the mysterious nature of the SUCS disruption has spurred waves of speculation from various media outlets, who note the geopolitical importance of Svalbard and the SUCS’s location, spanning a vital corridor for Russian naval activity between the Barents Sea and the Atlantic.
Recently, the UK’s newly appointed chief of the defence staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, noted the enormous increase in Russian submarine activity over the past 20 years, suggesting that “Russia has grown the capability to put at threat those undersea cables and potentially exploit them”.
Russian authorities have long suggested that the SvalSat site could be being used by Norway to download data from military satellites – something that would be illegal given Svalbard’s status as a designated demilitarised zone. It has also been suggested that the country fears the SUCS is being used to monitor their submarine activity in the areas.
Thus, damage to the system could not only disrupt these operations, if indeed they are taking place, but could feasibly have occurred as the result of attempts to tamper with or monitor this cable’s activity, including accessing data traffic.
For now, these theories remain mere conjecture. No evidence or suggestion of foul play has been presented by Space Norway, but this will no doubt still leave numerous parties in Norway and beyond eagerly awaiting the results of the company’s formal investigation.
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