Tolkien, Glaciers and Global Warming

Posted 05/10/2019 by Nigel Tozer

In my last blog I set out how Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has a growing carbon footprint, and that under normal conditions hyperscale cloud providers offer a more sustainable alternative to a private cloud in your own data center. I also said I’d be going on a trip to Iceland to look more closely into the impact of ICT on the environment, and seeing how it can be made more sustainable. Well, I did, and it was a real eye-opener.

    Traveling with Robert Swan OBE on a ClimateForce1 trip, we met with Iceland’s environment minister and Shell’s chief climate change officer. We also visited the world’s most sustainable data center and a geothermal power plant. At the end of the trip we went to see the impact of climate change at a receding glacier on Iceland’s south coast. While there, the guide said something that really brought it home to me – quite literally – and it also led to the

John R.R. Tolkien reference in the title. Let me explain...

The megawatt moment

Before I get to any Lord of the Rings references, I thought it would be worthwhile putting the impact of data center’s energy usage in perspective. The Verne Global data center I visited is a completely sustainable powered facility, with 100 megawatts of capacity. What exactly is a megawatt (MW), though? In real terms, 1 MW will supply around 2,000 homes in Europe (or approximately 1,000 in California). There are about 340,000 people living in the whole of Iceland, so that data center can draw more power than all of the homes in the capital of Reykjavik.

The penny really dropped in the geothermal power plant, though. It is where we saw two enormous turbines each producing 45MW. Just one of these turbines could power three-quarters of the capital of Iceland, but even when combined they would fall short of powering the data center we just saw (if it was to run at full capacity).

The truth is more than inconvenient

As someone who already accepts that people are causing climate change, my hearing from Shell's David Hone came as a shock. I’m sure David won’t mind me saying that I went in skeptical of an oil company talking climate change, but he gave us the stark facts of what needs to change. And it’s scary. Very scary. We all need to do what we can and also encourage our employers and governments around the world to act, too.

As I said last time, at roughly 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, ICT has overtaken aviation in terms of carbon output. Without action predictions2 it will grow to more than 3 percent, with some predicting even higher. Up is the wrong direction if we are to change where we’re heading.

The chill of Mordor

What then of the Tolkien reference in the title? The tour guide at the glacier mentioned that it first started shrinking in the 1890s, which got me thinking about the first industrial revolution, which started in the cities of central England a century or so earlier. By the early 1900s, the second industrial revolution was in full swing. It was so polluting that parts of the area became known as "the black country." I’m glad to say that the ground is no longer covered in industrial soot and ash. Additionally, the skies are clear and not ashen or black with smog unlike in those days.

    Tolkien grew up in the country side near where I live now, and the country side hills where I take my mountain bike overlook over this area. Many people believe the view of the blackened land and sky from these hills in the early 1900s are where he formed his ideas of Mordor. Fast forward over a century of escalating hydrocarbon burning.

I’m standing on a receding glacier, looking at ice covered in black rock from the surrounding land. Someone in our group asked the guide, "What do you call this place?" The guide quickly replied, "Mordor."

When I heard that, a little chill ran through me (not location related). The very thing that is driving global warming gave rise to a made-up place name, which has later been unwittingly applied to a glacier we use to measure it.

In Tolkien’s time, he could see with his own eyes what was being pumped into the air, but today we can’t because it’s (mostly) invisible. When you connect to a service from your phone, laptop or from your business servers, there is an even more abstract path back to the carbon emissions. So much so that it’s easy to forget they even have any.

For this reason, Commvault is committed to reducing our carbon footprint. So if you use our backup as a service for your servers or laptops, you can be sure Commvault runs them on a sustainable-powered cloud. If you’re attending our annual GO conference, you will be glad to know we’re working to ensure that it’s carbon neutral again, too, just like last year.

1 ClimateForce 2041: www.2041.com

2 How to stop data centers from gobbling up the world’s electricity, Nature.com, 2018

Nigel Tozer is the Solutions Marketing Director for EMEA. He has more than two decades of experience in the IT industry with a majority of it in enterprise software and in recent years, cloud technologies.