Could a powerful solar storm wipe out the internet?


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NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare — as seen in the bright flash on the top right — on Oct. 2, 2022. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares and which is colorized in orange.
(Image credit: NASA/SDO)

A significant solar storm destroys Earth's internet in Becky Chambers' 2019 novella "To Be Taught, If Fortunate," leaving a crew of astronauts stuck in space without a way to contact Earth. It's a terrible thought, but what if a solar storm did take down the internet? How likely is that to occur, if at all?

Yes, it is possible, but a significant solar storm would be required, according to Mathew Owens, a solar physicist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. To achieve it, Owens remarked, "You would need some big event, which is not impossible." But I believe it is more likely to take out electrical grids. In actuality, a small-scale version of this phenomenon has already occurred.

When the sun emits a powerful burst of electromagnetic radiation, solar storms—also referred to as space weather—occur. The Earth and other planets in the solar system are affected by energy waves that are released by this disruption. There are a few outcomes from the stray electromagnetic waves' interactions with the Earth's magnetic field.

The first is that, similar to how an electric blanket works, they create electric currents to flow through Earth's upper atmosphere, heating the air. These geomagnetic storms may produce stunning auroras over Polar Regions, but they can also interfere with radio and GPS transmissions. Additionally, when the atmosphere warms, it puffs up like a marshmallow, increasing the drag on low-Earth orbiting satellites and deflecting smaller particles of space debris.

The other effect of space weather is more earthly. Electric solid currents also cause strong winds to flow into our planet's crust when they pass through the upper atmosphere. Power grids, the network of transmission lines that carries energy from producing stations to homes and businesses, can be hampered by this as they lie on top of the crust. Localized power outages that can be challenging to repair are the outcome, and one such incident that occurred in Quebec on March 13, 1989, resulted in a 12-hour blackout, according to NASA. According to a previous Live Science investigation, a solar flare just destroyed 40 Starlink satellites because SpaceX neglected to examine the space weather prediction.

Fortunately, the disruption of a few Starlink satellites won't affect the accessibility of the internet worldwide. A solar storm would need to disrupt the highly long fibre optic connections that span beneath the seas and connect continents to shut down the internet entirely. These cables have repeaters installed every 30 to 90 miles (50 to 145 kilometres) to amplify the signal as it travels. Geomagnetic storms won't affect the wires directly but will affect the repeaters. Additionally, if only one repeater fails, it may be sufficient to bring down the entire connection. According to prior reports, this might result in an "internet apocalypse" if enough cables fail.

A total internet blackout may be disastrous since it would affect everyone's capacity to work and communicate on a basic level, as well as the financial market, the medical system, and the supply chain.

There are a few strategies for defending the internet from the upcoming big solar storm. The first step is to protect electrical grids, satellites, and underwater cables from being overwhelmed by the current surge. This includes failing safes that strategically turn off grids during the solar storm surge.

The second, less expensive alternative is to develop a more accurate long-term solar storm forecasting system.


Can solar storms be predicted?

Additionally, notoriously challenging to forecast are solar storms. They can, in part, be "extremely hard to nail down," according to Owens. "Because even if space weather has existed for thousands of years, the technology it affects has only existed for a short period of time."

Using the activity of sunspots, which are dark patches on the sun's surface that denote regions of intense plasma activity, scientists can anticipate solar storms up to two days before they impact Earth. However, unlike hurricanes, solar batteries are impossible for scientists to follow. Instead, they look for other hints, such as the sun's position within the current solar cycle. To create these estimates, NASA and the European Space Agency are examining how to combine older data with more recent observations.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sun has around 11-year cycles of higher or lower activity. Its next peak of activity, known as the solar maximum, should occur about 2025. Scientists believe that because current solar maximums have been relatively moderate, our sun may be experiencing a protracted phase of decreased activity. Since the 1990s, the sun has been relatively quiet, according to Owens. The so-called "Carrington Event" of 1859, during which auroras were seen as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, Hawaii, is considered the last global geomagnetic storm. There's a probability that this event would have been significantly interrupted if the internet had been around at the time.

Before we live in a world without the internet, scientists should be able to foresee or lessen the effects of the next Carrington Event. However, there could be worse fates, given the horrible depths of social media.

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