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Could a bad solar storm cause the end of the internet world?

08.09.2021 05:10 AM
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Could a bad solar storm cause the end of the internet world?
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Could a bad solar storm cause the end of the internet world?

Scientists have known for decades that intense solar storms, or coronal mass ejections — a massive explosion of solar wind and other light isotope plasma, and magnetic fields rising above the corona — can damage electrical grids, possibly causing Power outages for long times. The repercussions of these storms and explosions will include everywhere from global supply chains and transportation, to the Internet and the ability to access the Global Positioning System (GPS).

However, the impact that such a solar emission could have on internet infrastructure has not been specifically explored, as new research shows that the damage can be catastrophic, particularly to the submarine cables that support the global internet. At the SIGCOMM 2021 data communications conference, Sangeetha Jyoti of the University of California presented a paper titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for the End of the World’s Internet,” an examination of the damage that a fast-moving cloud of magnetized solar particles can cause on a network. Global Internet.

Jyoti's research suggests there is an additional nuance in a solar storm that could cause a blackout, a scenario in which a mass internet outage persists, even if electric power returns within hours or days. But there is some good news. Jyoti's research found that the local and regional Internet infrastructure would be at low risk even in the event of a massive solar storm, because the optical fibers themselves are not affected by geo-induced currents. Grounding (a term referring to an intentionally established electrical connection between an electrical device or network of devices on the one hand, and the mass of the earth on the other) short cable distances are also performed very regularly. But the risks to the long undersea cables that connect the continents will be much greater.

A solar storm that disrupts a number of these cables around the world could cause a massive loss of connectivity, by cutting countries off from the source, even while leaving local infrastructure intact. This would be like cutting off the flow to an apartment building because the main water source was cut off.

 

Are we ready for solar storms?

“What really got me thinking about this, is that with the Corona epidemic we saw how unprepared the world was,” researcher Jyoti told Wired. There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, which is the same with the resilience of the Internet, our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event, and we have limited understanding of the extent of the damage.”

This information gap mostly comes from a lack of data. Severe solar storms are so rare that there are only 3 prime examples that can occur in recent history. The major events of 1859 and 1921 showed that geomagnetic disturbances could disrupt electrical infrastructure and communication lines such as telegraph wires. During 1859, in what is known as the massive Carrington event, compass needles swung wildly and unexpectedly, and the aurora borealis was visible at Columbia's equator, but these geomagnetic disturbances occurred before modern electrical grids were established.

A moderate solar storm in 1989 destroyed the Hydro-Québec grid and caused a 9-hour blackout in northeastern Canada, but this also occurred before the advent of modern Internet infrastructure. Although they don't happen very often, coronal mass eruptions pose a real threat to the internet's resilience, says Jyoti. After three decades of reduced solar storm activity, she and other researchers note, the likelihood of another event is increasing.

 
 

Why is the internet threatened with extinction?

Undersea internet cables are likely to be vulnerable to solar storm damage for various reasons. To make sure that the data traveling across the oceans is intact, the cables are fitted with repeaters at intervals of about 50 to 150 km depending on the cable, and these devices amplify the optical signal, making sure nothing is lost during transmission. While the fiber-optic cable is not directly susceptible to disturbance from magnetically induced currents, the electronic internal parts of the repeaters are susceptible to damage, and damages would disable an entire subsea cable. In addition, undersea cables are only grounded over long periods of hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, which leaves weak components such as repeaters more vulnerable to currents caused by geomagnetism. This difference makes some grounding points more effective than others. In addition to all this, a major solar storm could wipe out any equipment orbiting the Earth, including those that provide services such as the Internet and global positioning via satellite.

Network operators have made some progress in mitigating risks over the past 10 years, says Thomas Overby, director of the Smart Grid Center at Texas A&M University. , other threats from factors such as extreme weather events or cyberattacks are increasingly taking priority. “Part of the problem is that we don't have a lot of experience dealing with storms,” Overby says. “There are some people who think geomagnetic disturbance will be a catastrophic scenario, and there are others who think it will be less than a major event. I think it's something we definitely want to be prepared for, and I've been working on developing risk assessment tools. But with that, there are a lot of other things happening in the industry that are important and a priority as well.”

And the infrastructure side of the Internet contains more unknowns. Jyoti stresses that her study is just the beginning of more comprehensive and multidisciplinary research and modeling that needs to be done, to fully understand the scale of the threat. While severe solar storms are rare, the risks are so great, a global disruption of this scale and scale would affect nearly every industry and everyone on Earth.

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