Due to this COVID-19 pandemic, we have become increasingly dependent on the Internet. The internet has become as important as food. But, can we survive without our internet?
According to a recent study, a solar storm that occurs once about a century could cause the world into an Internet Apocalypse.
This study titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse” by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California was presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference.
What are solar storms?
Solar storms are the massive eruptions of plasma and highly magnetized particles that are launched into space from the sun. The highly magnetized particles can travel several million km per hour and can take about 13 hours to 5 days to reach our planet. Usually, Earth’s magnetic shield blocks these particles from doing any real damage to the Earth and sends those particles towards the poles setting off the beautiful auroras.
But sometimes about every century, these highly magnetized particles escalate into full-blown solar storms that could cause serious damage to the Earth and modern life.
What does the research say?
The study states that there is a 1.6 to 12 per cent possibility of an extreme space weather event happening within the next decade. It could cause significant damage to the internet infrastructure as well as power grids throughout the world. In short, a severe solar storm could push the world into an internet apocalypse that would keep a large part of the society offline for weeks or months.
Also read: How does the Internet work?
What is the solar cycle?
The sun has a shorter 11 and a longer 100 years cycle. About every 11 years, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips, meaning its north and south poles are interchanged. This solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots. Sunspots are areas of strong magnetic forces on the surface of the Sun. As the magnetic field changes, the amount of activity on the surface of the Sun also changes.
As a new cycle begins, the Sun is said to be at a solar minimum meaning the Sun’s stormy behaviour builds to a minimum. In this period, the Sun has the fewest sunspots. Then the period of solar maximum comes, when the solar cycle is at its middle and the Sun has the highest number of sunspots. This is the time when the biggest solar flares can be expected.
And very soon, either in this cycle or the next cycle, we are going towards the peaks of the longer 100-year cycle.
What damage can a solar storm cause?
As we discussed earlier, the internet and power grids are the main things that can be affected by solar storms.
Apart from these, harmful particles of solar storms can produce their own magnetic field. This could modify the earth’s magnetic field and could affect the compass readings.
Solar storms could also damage the orbiting satellites, disrupt navigation and communication systems.
But there are some reliefs too. Optical fibres are unaffected by geomagnetically induced currents. Also, short cable spans are grounded regularly. So, regional internet infrastructure would be at low risk of damage. But the long undersea cables that connect the continents are at higher risk of damage even if most of them are connected via optical fibre cables. Because the long-haul cables have repeaters to boost the optical signals. These repeaters are highly susceptible to failure which can lead to the cable being unusable. Entire cables could be useless if even one repeater goes offline.
Besides, nations at high latitudes such as the U.S. and the U.K. are more susceptible to solar storms than nations at lower latitudes such as India, Singapore. In an extreme solar event, it’s those high-latitude nations that are likely to be cut off from the network first.
Has our planet ever faced a solar storm before?
The most severe solar storm happened in the year 1859. That incident is known as the Carrington Event. It affected the telegraph network and many operators experienced an electric shock. The auroras that are usually visible near the Earth’s poles were spotted near-equatorial Colombia. The compass needles swung wildly and unpredictably.
A solar storm that occurred in 1921 impacted New York telegraph and railroad systems.
In 1989, a moderate solar storm collapsed a power grid in Quebec, Canada and caused a 9-hour blackout.
It is estimated that if a solar storm similar to 1859 hit the United States today, the total economic cost will be $0.6-2.6 trillion and about 20-40 million people could be without power for 1-2 years.
But all these events occurred before the rise of modern internet infrastructure and the potential impacts of a massive storm on that infrastructure remain largely unstudied. We have little understanding of what damage a solar storm could cause now.
Both NASA and the European Space Agency have developed a system that can detect a solar storm 13 hours before it hits the Earth.
Thank you so much for reading!