The sun is always raining a land With a haze of magnetized particles known as the solar wind. For the most part, our planet magnetic shield It prevents this electric wind from doing any real harm to the Earth or its inhabitants, and instead sends those particles heading towards the poles and leaving fun behind. twilight in their wake.
But sometimes, every century or so, those winds escalate into a full-blown solar storm—and new research in SIGCOM 2021 The Data Communications Conference warns that the consequences of such extreme space weather could be disastrous for our modern way of life.
In short, a severe solar storm could plunge the world into an “online apocalypse” that keeps large sections of society offline for weeks or months at a time, writes Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, in the new research paper. (The paper has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.)
“What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic we saw how unprepared the world was. There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, and it’s the same with the resilience of the internet,” Abdu Jyoti WIRED . said. “Our infrastructure is not ready for a large-scale solar event.”
Part of the problem is that intense solar storms (also called coronal mass ejections) relatively rare; Scientists estimate the probability of severe space weather affecting Earth at between 1.6% and 12% each decade, according to Abdu Jyothi’s paper.
In recent history, only two such storms have been recorded – one in 1859 and the other in 1921. The earlier incident, known as Carrington event, created such an intense geomagnetic disturbance on Earth that telegraph wires caught fire, and the aurora borealis – usually seen only near the planet’s poles – have been observed near tropical Colombia. Small storms can also pack a punch; One in March 1989 overwhelmed the entire Canadian province of Quebec for nine hours.
Since then, human civilization has become more dependent on the global internet, and the potential effects of a massive geomagnetic storm on that new infrastructure remain largely unstudied, Abdo Jyoti said. In her new research paper, she attempts to identify the biggest weaknesses in that infrastructure.
The good news is that local and regional Internet connections are likely to have a low risk of damage because the fiber-optic cables themselves are not affected by geo-induced currents, according to the paper.
However, the long undersea internet cables that connect the continents are a different story. These cables are equipped with repeaters to boost the optical signal, spaced at intervals of 30 to 90 miles (50 to 150 kilometers). These repeaters are susceptible to geomagnetic currents, and entire cables can become useless if even one repeater is unconnected, according to the paper.
Abdo Jyothi wrote that if undersea cables were to break in a certain area, entire continents could be cut off from each other. Moreover, countries at higher latitudes – such as the United States and the United Kingdom – are more susceptible to solar weather than countries at low latitudes. In the event of a catastrophic geomagnetic storm, it is those countries at higher latitudes that are most likely to break off the grid first. It is difficult to predict how long it will take to repair the underwater infrastructure, but Abdo Jyoti notes that widespread internet outages over the past weeks or months are possible.
Meanwhile, millions of people may lose their livelihoods.
“The economic impact of a one-day internet disruption in the United States is estimated at more than $7 billion,” Abdo Jyoti wrote in her paper. “What if the network remains down for days or even months?”
If we don’t want to know, network operators must start taking the threat of severe solar weather seriously as the global Internet infrastructure inevitably expands. Abdo Jyoti said that laying more cables in low latitudes is a good start, as is developing resiliency tests that focus on the effects of large-scale network failures.
She added that when the big solar storm from our star explodes, people on Earth will have about 13 hours to prepare for its arrival. Let’s hope we’re ready to make the most of that time when it inevitably comes.
Originally published on Live Science.