TORONTO – Imagine if one day the Internet was down not only in your region, but around the world, due to a threat from space: a massive solar storm.
It sounds like science fiction, but a new study says it could become our reality sooner than we think if we don’t prepare properly the next time the sun sends a wave of magnetized plasma at us.
“Astrophysicists estimate the probability of a solar storm of sufficient strength to cause a catastrophic disturbance to occur within the next decade at 1.6 to 12 percent,” the study says.
Pay attention to this threat and plan defenses against it, […] It is critical to the long-term resilience of the Internet.”
The paper, written by University of California Associate Professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyoti, is titled “Supernatural Solar Storms: Planning for the Internet’s Apocalypse.”
It paints a frightening picture of what might happen if a massive solar storm hits us: submarine cables between countries are shut down, power grids are offline, and data centers are web giants at risk of darkness.
But how do we begin to protect it?
It is not easy to predict solar activity. While we know that the Sun’s 11-year cycle allows us to track when solar activity is high, it is not easy to determine whether these high points will experience harmless solar flares or large-scale solar weather events.
The Sun also has a longer cycle of approximately 80-100 years called the Gleissberg cycle, in which the probability of large-scale solar events occurring during the Sun’s maximum (the highest point in the 11-year cycle) increases four times.
The two most recent solar cycles, 1996-2008 and 2008-2020, were part of a minimum period of activity during the Gleissberg cycle.
In other words, recent technological advances have coincided with a period of weak solar activity and the Sun is expected to become more active in the near future, the study states.
This means that the modern Internet infrastructure that we have developed over the past few decades has not been tested by strong solar activity.
What is a solar storm?
Also known as a geomagnetic storm, a solar storm is what happens when something called a coronal mass ejection (CME) escapes from the sun and hits the Earth.
Large portions of the sun’s outermost layer, the corona, can volatilize into space due to changes in the sun’s magnetic fields. These clouds of magnetized particles and extremely hot gases can reach Earth anywhere from one to four or five days.
If the Earth were in the CME path, the solar plasma would collide with the Earth’s magnetic field and cause a geomagnetic storm. While this does not directly harm any human being on the planet below, it can affect our magnetic field and cause “strong electric currents on the Earth’s surface that can disable and even destroy various human technologies.”
We know this because it’s happened before – just never in the internet age.
The first recorded CME test with a major impact on Earth was in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, it caused widespread telegraph outages in North America and Europe, with equipment fires and electric shocks reported to telegram operators around the world.
The CME that caused it to travel was so fast that it reached Earth in just 17.6 hours, scientists in the past assumed that if we were to hit such an event today, it could cut off power for 20-40 million people in the US alone in order to reach two years.
The most powerful CME of the last century was in 1921. But smaller CMEs have affected us since then, including the one that caused Quebec’s power grid outage in 1989, plunging the entire province into darkness.
Just when it’s possible that the next big CME will be uncertain. The study showed that this next solar cycle is on track to have between 210 and 260 sunspots at the peak of the sun’s cycle, which is twice the amount that occurred at the peak in the last cycle. Coronal mass ejections originate near sunspots, so this could be an indicator of the strength and likelihood of coronal mass ejections.
The new study indicated that in the last Gleissberg cycle, its minimum was in 1910, and a massive CME occurred just over a decade later. Since we are out of the period of minimum solar activity, we must be alert.
“Given that a strong solar cycle that could produce a Carrington-scale event could occur in the next two decades, we need to prepare our infrastructure now for a potentially catastrophic event,” the study stated.
What are the risks?
The study looked at the physical infrastructure that could be at risk, from cable networks to data centers, to the location of more than 46,000,000 Internet routers.
A major threat during solar superstorms is magnetically induced currents (GIC) flowing through ground power grids and systems, endangering them as well as oil and gas pipelines and network cables.
The real concern is how these long distance cables can affect.
While long-range cables that carry signals in optical fibers are not in danger from GICs because there is no actual electrical current in them, the conductors that accompany them to power repeaters, called power feed lines, are at risk.
Undersea cables, which have been laid in the sea to transmit communications signals, have never before been tested by a strong solar event. These undersea cables keep the global Internet going, carrying nearly all of our communications.
“During catastrophic events with a high probability of repeater failure, at an internal repeater distance of 150 km, approximately 80 percent of subsea cables will be affected, leaving an equal portion of endpoints unreachable, while 52 percent of Cables and 17 per cent of the nodes in the US terrestrial network will be affected, the study predicted.
Satellites are also at risk during solar superstorms, not because of electric currents caused by interconnecting magnetic fields, but because of their contact with the supercharged particles themselves.
The study noted that “surface and satellite-based communications systems are extremely vulnerable to collapse if a Carrington-scale event occurs again.”
The study looked at weaknesses in physical infrastructure around the world in order to estimate what would happen in best and worst case scenarios in different countries.
Assuming only low failure on long-range cables, in the US most cables connected to Oregon will fail, and connection to Canada and Europe will fail entirely.
In China, while more than half of their connections will not be affected, Shanghai will lose all of its long-range connections.
Assuming high levels of failure, all long-range communications on the West Coast of the United States would be lost, except for one cable connecting Southern California to Hawaii. The UK will lose most of its long-distance cable and its connection to North America. New Zealand will lose all of its connections except for Australia.
“The United States is one of the most vulnerable locations with a high risk of detaching from Europe during severe solar events,” the study said. “Intracontinental communications in Europe are at less risk due to the large number of shorter lands and submarine cables connecting the continent.”
The study also looked at which areas would be at risk in a geomagnetic storm, and then the number of Internet providers in that area, and found that 57 percent of Internet providers would be at risk.
When it comes to data centers operated by web giants like Google and Facebook, the study found that Google data centers are more prevalent and largely located in countries where cable failures are least likely, while Facebook’s data centers are mostly located in the North. Part of the northern hemisphere.
“Given the limited geographic spread of data centers, Facebook will have less resilience in the event of solar superstorms,” the study said.
How do you plan
But as intimidating as all of this sounds, we have time to start the process of strengthening our infrastructure.
The study recommended strengthening our infrastructure by doing things like laying more cables to reduce the risk of outages.
The study suggested that, “Because links from the United States and Canada to Europe and Asia are very weak, adding more links to Central and South America could help maintain global connectivity.”
Planning for future data centers to spread across the globe rather than cluster in northern parts of Europe and North America will help keep the world connected in the event of a giant solar storm.
The study stated that currently the spacecraft will only be able to give us 13 hours of warning if a massive CME is on our way. Hopefully we might have anticipated it before then, but this is the window we can make sure someone is on the way.
The study suggested that in anticipation, we could devise a shutdown strategy to be activated globally, which would allow us to minimize contact loss after a geomagnetic storm. Power grids will need to be reduced or shut down completely during a storm.
In terms of internet infrastructure, we need to know how to protect equipment during a solar storm, and know how to continue the service if there is damage afterwards. Part of that is designing things that are tested to see how they work in the event of failure at scale, which is not currently part of the resilience assessment.
“We need to rethink the network environment in the event of a partial or complete disconnection,” the study stated.
Designing a backup system that can correct the available communication modes together, using cable, satellite, and wireless, can help keep things running.
It may take a lot of rethinking how to keep the world connected. But if we want the internet age to continue to run smoothly, it may be necessary to start protecting it from the sun’s wrath in the future.
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