Our sun wakes up – and it could have devastating consequences for the internet, especially in North America, if a ‘black swan event’ such as a solar superstorm occurs.
As reported by SpaceWeather.com, a “solar tsunami” occurred on the surface of the sun last Thursday. A mass of charged solar particles crashed into us and was due to arrive on Earth Monday. It can be supplemented on Tuesday and Wednesday with the leftovers of a sun flare on saturday to produce a G1 class geomagnetic storm.
We know that the sun becomes more active as it enters a new solar cycle and some predict that this could be the case the strongest since the start of the records.
soil shall face it this time, but what about the 1.6% to 12% chance of a massive solar superstorm happening? And we – and our internet – were prepared for such an event?”
Like the coronavirus pandemic, apparently not.
The report rates North America as one of the most vulnerable regions where an internet outage could last for months.
With estimated costs for internet outages about $7.2 billion a day for the U.S. economy, that’s well worth preparing for — and softening.
Solar flares vs coronal mass ejections
Of course, earth is doing have protection from solar flares, intense bursts of radiation that threaten our planet only when they occur on the side of the sun facing it.
When solar flares come our way, Earth’s magnetosphere accelerates the charged particles along the field lines toward the poles. The result, of course, is an afterglow known as the aurora: the northern lights and the southern lights.
Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are different. Rarer huge eruptions on the sun caused by magnetic storms, they create huge plasma clouds that can damage power grids if they drift our way.
Electricity Grids vs. Internet
However, power grids are designed to reduce the effect of CMEs. The internet is not. “The network community has largely overlooked this risk during the design of network topology and geo-distributed systems such as DNS and data centers,” reads the paper, which predicts large-scale Internet outages that will span the globe and last for several months.
The problem with submarine cables
The problem, the authors say, is the undersea cables that form the invisible backbone of the Internet. While the fiber optic cables among countries and cities would not suffer, mainly because they are shorter and grounded, the large number of submarine connections between continents is more vulnerable.
“[CMEs] produce Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) on the Earth’s surface through electromagnetic induction,” the paper reads. “Based on the power of the CME, in extreme cases, GIC has the potential to penetrate and damage long-distance cables that are the backbone of the Internet.”
Long-distance cables have repeaters to amplify the optical signals at intervals of 30-93 miles/50-150 km, which are fed by a conductor.
Do we know if they can withstand solar super storms? New. The last major solar events were in 1859 and 1921, which damaged the telegraph network. As for the modern internet, its resilience has not been tested, the authors say.
Why North America Would Suffer Most
Since the high-energy particles from a solar superstorm would be funneled toward the poles, higher latitudes would be most at risk. This is where most of the internet infrastructure is located, including submarine cables. But while Europe tends to use shorter cables, North America relies on longer cables, the authors say. So North America could suffer from internet outages for longer.
Either way, Europe and America could loosen up, while Asia’s equatorial Singapore hub is likely to be less affected.
The paper also says that Google’s data centers have better resilience than Facebook’s.
What about satellites?
Satellites in orbit are also at risk of damage, the paper says. That may be an even bigger deal in the future if systems like SpaceX Starlink by Elon Musk constellation manages to bring low loss broadband to much of the world that does not yet have access to the internet.
Worse still, the authors think Starlink-style satellite networks could be particularly vulnerable, writing: “GPS and communications satellites directly exposed to solar storms will suffer from lost connectivity, potential damage to electronic components, and worst of all during the event.” case case, orbital decay and return to Earth (especially in low Earth orbit satellites like StarLink.”
Like coronavirus all over again?
This, said lead author Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi until wired, is a story about us humans who are totally unprepared for something of great importance. Sounds familiar, right? “What really got me thinking is that with the pandemic, we saw how unprepared the world was. …there was no protocol to deal with it effectively and the same goes for the resilience of the internet,” she said. “Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited insight into the extent of the damage.’
As an example of how unprepared governments can be, former chief adviser to the British Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, revealed in May 2021 that UK’s plans are “completely hopeless” and that solar storms could create a “worse situation than Covid”.
Why the threat is now becoming a reality
All of this comes as our sun moves toward “solar maximum” in 2024. The sun has a cycle that lasts between nine and 14 years, an average of 11 years. At the peak of that cycle – called solar maximum— the sun produces more electrons and protons as solar flares and CMEs.
“During solar maxima, there is an increase in the frequency of two solar phenomena, solar flares and CMEs), both caused by twists in the sun’s magnetic fields,” the paper reads.
‘Solar maximum’ and total solar eclipses
The sun is thought to reach solar maximum in the mid-2020s, but exactly when the sunspot frequency will peak is anyone’s guess. It is something that can usually only be described in retrospect. The last solar maximum was in 2013/2014, but was ranked below the weakest ever. Next could be the strongest.
One way to visually gauge what’s going on is by counting sunspots — and the other is by looking at the mighty corona during a total solar eclipse.
The next is in Antarctica on December 4, 2021.
Either way, power grids are somewhat protected from solar superstorms. If we believe that the Internet is also a critical infrastructure – and, or Class it is – it must be protected from another species corona emergency.
I wish you a clear sky and big eyes.