An Internet Outage Could Be Caused by a Bad Solar Storm Apocalypse

An Internet Outage Could Be Caused by a Bad Solar Storm
A coronal mass eruption would particularly impact the undersea cables connecting much of the globe.

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.

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