But sometimes, every century or so, that wind degenerates into a veritable solar storm – and, as new research presented in the SIGCOM 2021 data communications conference warns that the results of such extreme space weather could spell disaster for our modern way of life.In short, a violent solar storm could plunge the world into an “Internet apocalypse” that will keep large swathes of society offline for weeks or months at a time, wrote Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, assistant professor at the University of California to Irvine. New research paper. (The article has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal).
“What really got me thinking about this was that with the pandemic, we saw how unprepared the world was. There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, and it is the same with the resilience of the Internet ”, Abdu Jyothi dit WIRED. “Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. “
Part of the problem is that extreme solar storms (also known as coronal mass ejections) are relatively rare; Scientists estimate that the probability of extreme space weather having a direct impact on Earth is between 1.6% and 12% per decade, according to the article by Abdu Jyothi.
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 a severe geomagnetic disturbance on Earth that telegraph wires caught fire, and auroras – usually visible only near the planet’s poles – were spotted near equatorial Colombia. Smaller storms can also pack a punch; one in March 1989 blackened the entire Canadian province of Quebec for nine hours.
Since then, human civilization has become much more dependent on the global internet, and the potential impacts of a massive geomagnetic storm on this new infrastructure remain largely unstudied, Abdu Jyothi said. In her new article, she tried to identify the biggest vulnerabilities in this infrastructure.
The good news is that local and regional internet connections are unlikely to be damaged because the fiber optic cables themselves are unaffected by induced geomagnetic currents, according to the newspaper.
However, the long submarine internet cables that connect the continents are another story. These cables are fitted with repeaters to amplify the optical signal, spaced at intervals of approximately 30 to 90 miles (50 to 150 kilometers). These repeaters are vulnerable to geomagnetic currents, and entire cables could be rendered useless if even one repeater goes offline, according to the document.
If enough submarine cables fail in a particular region, entire continents could be cut off from each other, wrote Abdu Jyothi. Additionally, countries at higher latitudes, such as the US and UK, are much more sensitive to solar weather than countries at lower latitudes. In the event of a catastrophic geomagnetic storm, high latitude countries are most likely to be cut off from the grid first. It’s hard to predict how long it would take to repair undersea infrastructure, but Abdu Jyothi suggests that large-scale internet outages that last for weeks or months are possible.
In the meantime, millions of people could lose their livelihoods.
“The economic impact of a one-day Internet disruption in the United States is estimated to be over $ 7 billion,” wrote Abdu Jyothi in his article. “What if the network was left non-functional for days or even months? “
If we don’t want to find out, then network operators need to start taking the threat of extreme solar weather seriously as the global internet infrastructure inevitably grows. Laying more cables at lower latitudes is a good start, Abdu Jyothi said, as is developing resiliency tests that focus on the effects of large-scale grid outages.
When the next great solar storm emerges from our star, the people of Earth will have around 13 hours to prepare for its arrival, she added. Hopefully we are ready to make the most of this moment when it inevitably comes.
Originally posted on Live Science.