A solar superstorm could cause a global internet collapse comparable to an apocalyptic event that could last for weeks, according to a study based on modeling experiments from the University of California, Irvine (UCI).
Key findings: Solar storms, also known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), can destabilize the Earth’s magnetic field and cause events that affect space and ground technology. Among them is the production of geomagnetically induced currents (GIC), which may enter and damage long-distance undersea cables that run the internet.
- CMEs are composed of highly magnetized particles. While the Earth’s magnetic field naturally deflects solar activity — including solar flares, which are outbursts of radiation seen as bright areas on the sun — a powerful CME in a direct path to the planet poses a greater risk of damage.
- In her research “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” Dr. Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, who leads UCI’s Network, Systems and AI Lab (NetSAIL), found that submarine cables have the highest risk of damage, primarily because they are longer. While the optical fiber in cables is immune to GIC, “repeaters,” which boost optical signals in long-distance cables, are not.
- The study also found that impact will be felt differently across regions. The U.S., for instance, will be highly susceptible to disconnection from Europe. And while Europe is in a vulnerable location — since CMEs pose greater impact at higher altitudes — it will be more resilient due to its shorter cables. Parts of Asia appear to be the most resilient of all, with Singapore serving as a central hub with shorter connections to multiple countries.
9/ Consider the most vulnerable long-distance submarine cables for example. They are concentrated in higher latitudes, particularly between the US and Europe.[Image: https://t.co/apN3mdrFlS] pic.twitter.com/nyHusQHNVB
— Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi (@sangeetha_a_j) July 29, 2021
What can be done: While CME warnings can be issued at least 13 hours before they happen, the Earth’s defenses against GIC are limited, Abdu Jyothi said. Infrastructure operators must therefore plan an internet shutdown strategy, which should minimize connectivity loss during and after impact.
- Abdu Jyothi’s strategy focuses on protecting the equipment during the solar storm and ensuring the continuation of services in the aftermath. She said “powering off is the easiest solution” to prevent equipment damage, though it can only help in moderate threats (since GIC can still flow through shut-down cables).
- Search engines, financial institutions and other essential services must geodistribute critical data so that each disconnected region can function on its own after the storm, Abdu Jyothi said. She also suggested pre-provisions for emergency services such as 911, hospitals and fire departments.
- Astrophysicists estimate an up to 12% likelihood of a solar storm causing “catastrophic destruction” within the next decade, Abdu Jyothi said. Aside from a shutdown strategy, she encouraged measures such as considering powerful CMEs when expanding internet infrastructure, designing ad-hoc network connectivity mechanisms, devising new resilience tests for internet systems, and addressing the interdependence of power grids and the internet.
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