Data Center Operations in Climate Change

A Call to Action


Record heat all over the globe is now a potentially bigger threat to ongoing data center operations than cybercrime. In late July, Google Cloud’s data centers in London went offline for a day because of cooling failures. Oracle’s cloud-based data center, also in London, was hit and went offline, causing outages for US clients.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says there’s a 93% change that one year between 2022 and 2026 will be the hottest on record. “For as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise,” says Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary general. “And alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise, and our weather will become more extreme.”

A survey conducted by the Uptime Institute, a digital services standards agency, found that 45% of all US data centers have experienced an extreme weather event that threatened their ability to provide uninterrupted service.

The problem with both US-based and European centers is that their cooling systems were designed for a cooler planet than we have today. Newer data centers are now being constructed with a forecasted weather scenario to better plan for much higher temperatures.

Most data centers don’t operate at full capacity, but recent Cushman & Wakefield research shows that eight data center markets worldwide out of 55 they investigated operate at 95% or higher capacity. These centers are only strained by high temperatures a few days a year and they have been able to adjust loads to compensate for the heat. 

As climate change alters our temperatures permanently, data centers will have to improve their cooling systems so that continuous service can be assured.

“There are a deceptively large number of legacy data center sites built by banks and financial services companies needing to be refreshed and refitted,” says Simon Harris, head of critical infrastructure at data center consultancy Business Critical Solutions. As part of that rethink, Harris advises companies to look at design criteria that can cope with climate change, rather than solely minimizing its effects. “It’ll be bigger chiller machines, machines with bigger condensers, and looking more at machines that use evaporative cooling to achieve the performance criteria needed to ensure that for those days things are still in a good place,” he says.

Companies are trying novel approaches to dealing with the climate issues. Microsoft ran a three-year trial of a data center set 117 feet below the sea offshore of Scotland to insulate it from temperature fluctuations. Other companies are building centers in even more northern climates, but that probably won’t be a viable solution for those organizations who use edge computing and need their centers close to where data is consumed, often in hotter, urban areas.

We all have to do everything we can to reduce the impact of climate change, but now is the time for all data center management personnel to better plan for the increased temperatures we will experience for the foreseeable future.



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