Ninety-three million miles away, a solar storm brews with the power to prompt an “internet apocalypse,” according to recent findings.
University of California Irvine assistant professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi presented the new research last month during the Association for Computing Machinery’s annual conference for their Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM).
In the report, Jyothi warned that an unmitigated solar “superstorm” could “cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months” — pointing to inadequacies in submarine cables, a major component of internet infrastructure.
Most of the time, we’re protected from the Sun’s constant littering of radiation, called solar “wind,” thanks to the ionosphere, otherwise known as Earth’s magnetic shield. With nowhere to go, those magnetic particles are pulled to the North and South Poles, producing an awe-inspiring aurora before dissipating.
But sometimes, solar flares kick up what’s called a coronal mass ejection (CME), a solar storm strong enough to penetrate our shield and wreak havoc on just about anything powered with electromagnetism — which just about runs the world.
It has been estimated that the potential damage caused by a disastrous CME in 2012, which only narrowly missed Earth, would have cost the US alone up to $2.6 trillion.
“Our [internet] infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event,” Jyothi told Wired recently, ticking off the consequences: widespread blackouts, mass traffic jams and a breakdown in the global supply chain, to name a few.
Local and regional internet infrastructure often relies on optical fiber, which isn’t affected by geomagnetic currents, or grounded short-span cables, which are by nature protected from an electromagnetic surge. But it’s a different story with undersea cables, which connect continents via the internet. While the cables themselves aren’t vulnerable, the electronic repeaters therein, which help amplify the optical signal, are susceptible to damage by geomagnetically induced currents. If enough repeaters blow out, the whole line could be shot.
For some countries, damage to these mainline cables may cut their connectivity at the source — not to mention potential damage to satellites, which enable internet for many.
It’s happened before, researchers have said. In 1921, a solar storm sparked fires in electrical equipment across the world, from train station control rooms to telegraph dispatch centers. Again, in 1989, a solar storm of moderate severity knocked the power out in northeast Canada for nine hours — still before the rise of internet-based infrastructure.
Jeffrey Love, a geophysicist in the geomagnetism program of the US Geological Survey (USGS), told the Independent that the impact of that 1921 New York Railroad Storm would be much greater today.
“When we look back at this time, anything that’s related to electricity wasn’t as important in 1921 as it is today,” he said.
In an interview for NextGov.com in May, Dr. Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), told Dana A. Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNT), that the Sun’s current electromagnetic cycle, which lasts about 11 years, is projected to be a doozy.
“We have every reason to believe that the current solar cycle which began in December 2019 could be the most active since the 1970s. This is a particular concern for the GPS,” said McIntosh, who estimated a 35% to 45% chance a CME will disrupt Global Positioning System service, for potentially several days, sometime during the next decade.
He continued, “Strong solar storms can charge the atmosphere and prevent signals from getting through for days. The strongest can damage or even destroy satellites.”
Researchers, as well as lawmakers, have discussed GPS alternatives in the past, prompting Congress to pass the National Timing Resilience and Security Act in 2018, asking the Department of Transportation to devise terrestrial backup for global navigation services, in the event satellites are rendered useless. Despite concerns, no progress has been made, according to RNT’s Goward.
“Even with the most concerted government efforts, five or six years will be needed to establish systems and encourage, or where needed, require, users to protect themselves and vital services,” warned Goward. “Such a timeline will take us well into the coming solar danger zone.”