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Ultra-rare solar superstorm could signal an ‘internet apocalypse’!

The Independent has reported that a severe solar storm could dramatically impact Planet Earth by causing chaos with the internet. But what, ahem, on Earth does that mean?

We all use the internet - scrub that - we all rely on the internet, on a daily basis, usually for many hours a day, for both business and pleasure. So on reading that something as catastrophic as a space weather event could one day close down the internet, our heads were turned and we needed some answers.

'Is this likely, or just pie in the sky?', was our primary question. Well, according to the Independent, whose article was backed by specialists in this field, this space phenomenon - that only happens once in approximately 80 to 100 years - could indeed signal online Armageddon.

But how? Apparently, it has a lot to do with solar wind and how 'active' the Sun may become. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind - consisting of charged particles streaming from the Sun - by deflecting the electric wind towards the planet’s poles, thus creating scenic auroras like The Northern Lights.

However, according to a study presented at SIGCOMM 2021 - the annual conference of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication - due to how the Sun’s natural life cycle behaves, about every 80-100 years, these winds form solar superstorms, which can wreak carnage on the planet's communication networks.

The study suggests that long-distance optical fiber lines and submarine cables (that’s cables that run beneath the oceans, not those in use on sub-aquatic vessels) which are crucial to the global internet infrastructure are vulnerable to the currents produced on the Earth’s crust by these solar superstorms, known to boffins as Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs.

In a Tweet by Dr. Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at University of California, Irvine and VMware Research, she states: “A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) involves the emission of electrically charged matter and accompanying magnetic field into space. When it hits the earth, it interacts with the earth’s magnetic field and produces Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) on the crust,”

“In today’s long-haul internet cables, the optical fiber is immune to GIC. But these cables also have electrically powered repeaters at 100 km intervals that are susceptible to damages,” Jyothi added.

Probability, and what could happen

The likelihood of such a catastrophic internet outage happening is predicted to be at 1.6 per cent to 12 per cent per decade. But, Dr. Jyothi pointed out that the chances increase during the Sun’s cycles, and we’re about to enter a new one (solar cycle 25, fact fans).

But predicting solar winds is extremely difficult. The largest solar events on record occurred in 1859 and 1921, way before the advent of modern technology, but these still caused significant damage to the communication network at the time, namely the telegraph network. An event of a similar scale missed the Earth by just a week in 2012!

Over the past three decades, modern technological advances have coincided with a period of weak solar activity. However, now that the Sun is about to enter this new cycle it is predicted that it will become more active in the NEAR future, although again, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint a date with any degree of accuracy.

But Dr. Jyothi says, in her presentation at the conference, which is available to watch on You Tube below, that “the bottom line here is that a large event could happen soon, and the impact is large enough so that we should prepare our infrastructure for it”.

She also Tweeted: “In short, we have NO IDEA how resilient the current internet infrastructure is against the threat of Coronal Mass Ejections!,”

She goes on to speak about how the impact would not be uniform across the globe, based on factors that include the length of cables and latitudes. Internet infrastructure in higher latitudes, for example, above the equator, face a higher risk, meaning the US could become disconnected from Europe while a thriving hub like Singapore would feel the effect to a lesser extent and retain its connection with neighbouring countries based on it being below the equator and because connection cables are much shorter.

The study underscores the need to consider the risk from solar storms while designing and deploying internet infrastructure and applications, and calls for better resilience analysis on the global network.

Dr. Jyothi also predicted that if such an event were to happen, large businesses could expect revenue losses per hour to be in the region of 10s of millions of dollars, while some countries could lose 100s of millions per hour, or billions per day. The US sits at the top of the chart of estimated revenue loss, with China second and the UK third.

"The study is just scratching the surface of an important problem. A lot needs to be done to understand the risk and robustify our infrastructure,” Dr. Jyothi concluded


Dr. Jyothi’s thread can be read on Twitter, on which she also links to her paper.

You can also watch her presentation below. (Despite the video lasting almost an hour, her presentation ends at 13:27 minutes. In the time remaining she answers questions from attendees)



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