A solar storm has a massive potential for destruction, especially when it comes to electronics and infrastructure. So, any big enough solar storm today, would have a catastrophic impact on the global infrastructure that keeps our Internet running. However, if the digital infra is destroyed, it will bring the Internet down along with it. An Internet outage in this modern era will not only cause massive money loss, it would also cost many lives. The Internet is the backbone of everything that happens in the world today, but nothing carries a greater threat of a mass outage than solar storms. A big enough solar storm today, referred to as a ‘solar superstorm’, can threaten this very backbone. The world, as such, in unprepared for a solar storm-Internet linked apocalypse. This is in addition to having an impact on the electrical grids, which has already been documented in the case of past solar storms that were truly massive in nature.
Solar storm and the Internet: Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi starts her research paper with this sentence, “Black swan events are hard-to-predict rare events that can significantly alter the course of our lives. The Internet has played a key role in helping us deal with the coronavirus pandemic, a recent black swan event. However, Internet researchers and operators are mostly blind to another black swan event that poses a direct threat to Internet infrastructure. We investigate the impact of solar superstorms that can potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe.”
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What is a solar storm? For those who are not familiar with the term solar storm, here’s a quick explainer. A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is popularly known as a solar storm. It is a directional ejection of a large mass of highly magnetized particles from the Sun. When the Earth is in the direct path of a solar storm, these magnetized and charged solar particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and produce a number of effects, which includes damaging vital parts of long-distance sea cables that make up the backbone of the Internet. They also create the beautiful lighting seen in Aurora Borealis.
How solar storm will cause Internet outage: The internet today primarily uses fiber optic cables. However, these are mostly immune to solar storms since they carry light and not electric current. But, long haul cables use an accompanying conductor that connects repeaters in series along the length of cables called the power feeding line. According to a research paper published by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research, a solar storm will impact this conductor and the world needs to sit up, take notice. More than that, they should prepare for any solar storm caused Internet apocalypse..
The researcher says that submarine cables are more vulnerable to a solar storm today than land cables. This is mostly due to the fact they have larger lengths and hence have more repeaters.
The researcher also indicated the impact of a solar storm on the internet infrastructure is also based on the area where the fiber optics cable has been placed. In her research paper, Jyothi has explained that cables in the US are highly susceptible to disconnection from Europe. Similarly, Europe is in a vulnerable location but is more resilient due to the presence of a larger number of shorter cables. Asia, on the other hand, has relatively high resilience with Singapore acting as a hub with connections to several countries.
Furthermore, the researcher also determined that Google data centers were more resilient than Facebook’s data centers, which means that your data on Google is safer in case a solar storm does hit the Earth when compared with your data on Facebook.
Nasa says one of the largest events caused by such a storm was dubbed as the Carrington event, which hit Earth at 11:18 AM on a cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859. According to Nasa, “Telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.” Carrington event was dubbed as a solar superstorm by many thereafter.