For decades, scientists have been aware that an extreme solar storm (or coronal mass eruption) could cause severe damage to electrical grids, and possibly even blackouts for prolonged periods. All aspects of the repercussions could be affected, from transportation and global supply chains to internet access and GPS access. The potential impact of such solar emissions on the internet infrastructure has been less studied. Recent research has shown that failures of the subsea cables, which underpin the internet worldwide could prove to be devastating.
At the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference on Thursday, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine presented “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” an examination of the damage a fast-moving cloud of magnetized solar particles could cause the global internet. Abdu Jyothi’s research points out an additional nuance to a blackout-causing solar storm: the scenario where even if power returns in hours or days, mass internet outages persist.
Good news is ahead. Abdu Jyothi discovered that the local and regional Internet infrastructure is not at risk even in large solar storms. This is because optical fiber doesn’t get affected by any geomagnetically-induced currents. Also, short cable lengths are grounded regularly. The risks for longer undersea cables connecting continents are greater. If a solar storm disrupts a large number of cables across the globe, it could result in a huge loss of connectivity. Countries would be cut off at their source while local infrastructure is preserved. This would result in a loss of flow from an apartment because of a main break in the water supply.
The pandemic was a reminder of how unprepared humanity is. Before her talk, Abdu Jyothi explained that there was no effective protocol and the same applies to internet resilience. Our infrastructure isn’t ready for large-scale solar events. Our knowledge of the potential damage is very limited.
This information gap is mostly due to a lack of data. Extreme solar storms, which are rarer than they used to be in history, are very uncommon. Geomagnetic disturbances, such as those that disrupt the electrical infrastructure or cause disruptions to communication lines (e.g. telegraph wires), were demonstrated in large events like 1859 and 1921. During the massive 1859 “Carrington Event,” compass needles swung wildly and unpredictably, and the aurora borealis was visible at the equator in Colombia. These geomagnetic storms happened before the modern electricity grid was established. In 1989, a moderate-severity sunspot knocked out Hydro-Quebec’s power grid. It also caused an eight-hour blackout in Northeast Canada. However, this too happened before modern internet infrastructure.
Coronal mass ejections, even though they are rare, pose a serious threat to internet resilience. And after three decades of low solar storm activity, she and other researchers point out that the probability of another incident is rising.
For a variety of reasons, undersea internet cables can be susceptible to damage from solar storms. Cables are equipped with repeaters that can be used to transmit data over oceans. Repeaters may be placed at distances of approximately 50-150 kilometers, depending on which cable is being used. They amplify the optical signal and ensure that no data is lost during transit. This works in the same way as a relay throw in baseball. Although fiber optic cables are not directly susceptible to geomagnetically-induced current disruptions, repeaters’ electronic internals can be affected. Repeater failures could render entire subsea cables inoperable. Undersea cables can only be grounded at long intervals of hundreds to thousands of kilometers, leaving vulnerable parts like repeaters exposed to the geomagnetically-induced currents. There are also differences in the composition of seafloor, which could make some grounding points less effective than others.
A major solar storm can also cause damage to any satellite internet or global positioning equipment orbiting the Earth.
Abdu Jyothi states that there are currently no models of how these storms could unfold. We have more information about how storms could impact power systems but this is only on the ground. It’s much more challenging to forecast the effects of storms on power systems in the ocean.
Coronal mass eruptions are more powerful at higher latitudes and closer to Earth’s magnetic poles. Abdu Jyothi is more concerned about cables in certain regions than other. For example, she found that Asia is less at risk because Singapore serves as the hub for numerous undersea cables within the region. It’s also located near the Equator. The cables that run through that area are shorter because they don’t form one long span but branch off of it. Even moderate storms could be more dangerous for cables that cross both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at high latitudes.
Global internet resilience is built into it. Traffic can reroute across different paths if one route isn’t open. This property could keep the internet connected even if speeds are reduced in case of solar storms. However, enough damage would cause the network to be unstable. Abdu Jyothi warns that foundational data routing systems such as the Border Gateway Protocol or Domain Name System, could become dysfunctional depending on the location of the outages. This can lead to knock-on downages. This is the Internet version of traffic jams caused by road signs disappearing and traffic lights going out at major intersections in a city.
North America and some other regions have minimum standards and procedures for grid operators related to solar storm preparedness. Thomas Overbye from Texas A&M University’s Smart Grid Center says grid operators have made progress in mitigating this risk during the last 10 years. He emphasizes, however that geomagnetic disruptions are rare and unstudied so other risks like cyberattacks or extreme weather are taking precedence.
Overbye states that part of the problem lies in our lack of storm experience. There are people who believe a geomagnetic disruption would cause a catastrophe, while others think that it will be more manageable. The middle is where I am. It’s something we as industry need to prepare for. I have been developing tools to assess risk. There are many other important things happening in the industry.
There are many unknowns on the internet infrastructure side. Abdu Jyothi stresses that the results of her research are only the first step in a much larger interdisciplinary effort to model and understand the danger. Although severe solar storms can be extremely rare, they are very dangerous. An extended global outage on that magnitude would have devastating effects for nearly all industries and individuals.
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Publiated at Thu 26 August 2021 22.41:42 +0000