As heat waves become more common and extreme due to the effects of climate change, the data centres that provide the backbone for the online services the public relies on are at risk of overheating.

"(Data centres) are responsible for running many of the services that you use. If you have Gmail, your Gmail is stored somewhere. If you have pictures on Instagram, your Instagram photos are stored in a data centre," said Clifford Stein, director of Columbia University's Data Science Institute, in an interview with CTV's Your Morning on Tuesday.

A data centre can have thousands of computers in one room, generating a considerable amount of heat. These computers have to be cooled in order for them to avoid malfunctioning -- a task that becomes far more challenging during extreme heat events, Stein says.

"As the climate heats up, it becomes harder and harder to keep data centres cool," Stein said. "They're constantly generating heat and they're generating it everywhere."

During July’s heat waves in the U.K., where temperatures topped 40 C, Google Cloud reported "cooling related failures" at one of the buildings that houses its data centres in London. Oracle Cloud also blamed "unseasonably high temperatures" after cooling units failed at a data centre in London, resulting in some service outages.

Some companies are opting to set up data centres in colder environments to avoid issues with overheating. Iceland's chamber of commerce is encouraging tech companies to set up more data centres in the country, touting "virtually free cooling all year round" thanks to their cold climate.

In 2020, Microsoft even experimented with storing data centres below the sea off the coast of Scotland, saying underwater data centres are "reliable, practical and use energy sustainably."

However, Stein says these solutions could also result in slower data speeds for users.

"The problem is that you also want your data centre to be near the users," he said. "When you want to get your data, you want to get it fast. So if you put all the data centres in Iceland, it would be easier to cool them, but your data would come much slower."

Watch the full interview about the potential of data centres overheating with Stein at the top of this article.