A Coming Solar Storm Could Cause an Internet Apocalypse!
Solar flares are a common occurrence. Usually, they go unnoticed except to the astronomers and other scientists who study them. On occasion, however, they create electromagnetic storms that interfere with communications. Scientists say we may be on the verge of one such solar storm that could be so severe that it could cause an “Internet Apocalypse!”
The sun is always showering Earth with a mist of magnetized particles known as the solar wind. For the most part, our planet’s magnetic shield blocks this electric wind from doing any real damage to Earth or its inhabitants, instead sending those particles skittering toward the poles and leaving behind the beautiful colors of nature’s best light show – the aurora borealis in their wake.
But sometimes, every century or so, that wind escalates into a full-blown solar storm — and, as new research presented at the SIGCOMMe 2021 data communication conference warned, the results of such extreme space weather could be catastrophic to our modern way of life.
According to Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, who presented his paper at the conference, a severe solar storm could plunge the world into an “internet apocalypse” that keeps large swaths of society offline for weeks or months at a time. Jyothi’s study is still awaiting peer review.
“What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic, we saw how unprepared the world was. There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, and it’s the same with internet resilience,” Abdu Jyothi told WIRED. “Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event.”
Before you panic, these events are exceedingly rare. According to Jyothi’s own paper, the probability of such an extreme space weather storm directly impacting Earth is between 1.6% to 12% per decade. In fact, in recent history, according to Jyothi’s presentation, only two such storms have been recorded in recent history, one in 1859 and the other in 1921. The earlier incident, known as the Carrington Event, created such a severe geomagnetic disturbance on Earth that telegraph wires burst into flame, and auroras — usually only visible near the planet’s poles — were spotted near equatorial Colombia. Smaller storms can also pack a punch; one in March 1989 blacked out the entire Canadian province of Quebec for nine hours.
However, since these events, human civilization has become much more reliant on the global internet, and the potential impacts of a massive geomagnetic storm on that new infrastructure remain largely unstudied, Abdu Jyothi said.
Of particular vulnerability are the vast network of undersea cables that connect the global internet. According to her paper, “if enough undersea cables fail in a particular region, then entire continents could be cut off from one another.” What’s more, nations at high latitudes — such as the US and the UK — are far more susceptible to solar weather than nations at lower latitudes. In the event of a catastrophic geomagnetic storm, it’s those high-latitude nations that are most likely to be cut off from the network first. It’s hard to predict how long it would take to repair underwater infrastructure, but Abdu Jyothi suggests that large-scale internet outages that last weeks or months are possible.
In the meantime, millions of people could lose their livelihoods.
“The economic impact of an Internet disruption for a day in the US is estimated to be over $7 billion,” Abdu Jyothi wrote in her paper. “What if the network remains non-functional for days or even months?”
So what can we do? Laying more cables at lower altitudes is a start, says Jyothi. When the next big solar storm does blast out of our star, people on Earth will have about 13 hours to prepare for its arrival, she added. Let’s hope we’re ready to make the most of that time when it inevitably arrives.