18 September 2021

Wired: “A Bad Solar Storm could cause an ‘Internet Apocalypse’”

Though they don’t happen often, coronal mass ejections are a real threat to internet resilience, says Abdu Jyothi. And after three decades of low solar storm activity, she and other researchers point out that the probability of another incident is rising.

Undersea internet cables are potentially susceptible to solar storm damage for a few reasons. To shepherd data across oceans intact, cables are fitted with repeaters at intervals of roughly 50 to 150 kilometers depending on the cable. These devices amplify the optical signal, making sure that nothing gets lost in transit, like a relay throw in baseball. While fiber optic cable isn’t directly vulnerable to disruption by geomagnetically induced currents, the electronic internals of repeaters are—and enough repeater failures will render an entire undersea cable inoperable. Additionally, undersea cables are only grounded at extended intervals hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, which leaves vulnerable components like repeaters more exposed to geomagnetically induced currents. The composition of the sea floor also varies, possibly making some grounding points more effective than others.

On top of all of this, a major solar storm could also knock out any equipment that orbits the Earth that enables services like satellite internet and global positioning.

Lily Hay Newman

During the pandemic, the world has grown increasingly dependent on Internet access, which has maintained a sense of connection during lockdowns and allowed many people to continue working from home, keeping businesses running on digital services. Now imagine Internet access abruptly disrupted, with no warnings and no way to find out what is going on… The chaos would be massive, and the disruption could last for months, as damaged undersea cables and disabled satellites cannot be replaced instantly. And, as with the pandemic, the world seems ill prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

A stream of plasma rises from the sun’s surface
A stream of plasma rises from the sun’s surface in this image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Such minor outbursts are routine, but ones far larger can occur—and can wreak havoc if they strike our planet. Credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory and NASA

A more problematic consequence of solar storms are the blackouts, and this risk is likely to rise in the future, as we try to contain global warming by switching heating and cars to electric power. On the other hand, some of these changes may reduce issues posed by solar storms: a more distributed energy network would be more resilient to large-scale disruptions, and fitting individual homes with high capacity batteries will keep them running in the event of a major blackout, at least for a couple of days.

Recent studies have discovered three potential solar mega-storms in the past 10,000 years, all much more powerful than the famous 1859 Carrington Event. The consequences for our modern, connected society, are hard to evaluate, but a new ‘dark age’ would be putting it mildly. I would rather not experience even a minor storm in my lifetime…

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