Space weather: Major solar storms could cripple the world’s internet for weeks, study finds

The internet could be paralyzed for weeks in the wake of a major solar storm thanks to vulnerabilities in the world’s vast network of submarine communications cables.

This is the warning from University of California computer scientist Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, who assessed how space weather can affect internet infrastructure.

The electromagnetic fluctuations caused by intense solar storms cannot directly harm the fiber optic cables that form the backbone of the Internet.

However, they do have the potential to disable the signal amplifiers along submarine cables needed to maintain connections over long distances.

And not only are submarine cables more vulnerable to the ravages of space weather than those on land, but given their inaccessibility, they are also more difficult to repair.

According to astrophysicists, the probability of a solar storm causing catastrophic disruptions in the next decade is between 1.6 and 12 percent.

In addition to potential disruptions to Internet access, such events can also lead to widespread power outages due to overloading of power grids and the failure of GPS systems.

The internet could be paralyzed for weeks in the wake of a major solar storm thanks to vulnerabilities in the world’s vast network of submarine communications cables. Pictured: A type of solar storm called a coronal mass ejection exiting the sun, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite on June 17, 2015

The electromagnetic fluctuations caused by solar storms cannot directly harm the fiber optic cables that form the backbone of the Internet.  However, they do have the potential to disable the signal amplifiers along submarine cables needed to maintain connections over long distances.  Pictured: A map of the world's undersea internet cables

The electromagnetic fluctuations caused by solar storms cannot directly harm the fiber optic cables that form the backbone of the Internet. However, they do have the potential to disable the signal amplifiers along submarine cables needed to maintain connections over long distances. Pictured: A map of the world’s undersea internet cables

HOW MUCH ARE BIG SUNNERS?

According to astrophysicists, the probability of a solar storm causing catastrophic disruptions in the next decade is between 1.6 and 12 percent.

Part of the problem with assessing their likely effect is that we haven’t had a major storm since the development of the Internet.

In fact, there are only three examples in recent history that we can draw on for understanding.

The so-called ‘Carrington Event’ (see below) of 1859 caused major disruptions to telegraph systems, compass needles swinging wide from the mark, and even triggered auroras at the equator in Colombia.

Smaller storms struck in 1921 and 1989, the last of which notably knocked out Hydro-Québec’s electrical grid, causing a nine-hour blackout in northeastern Canada.

The sun also goes through periodic cycles of more and less activity. The current one, dubbed “solar cycle 25,” will peak in 2025, but is expected to be relatively quiet compared to some of its predecessors.

One of the most powerful forms of solar storms is a coronal mass ejection — an event in which the sun ejects a cloud of ionized particles and electromagnetic fluctuations into space, often in the wake of a solar flare.

When a coronal mass ejection reaches Earth, it can cause disturbances in our planet’s magnetic field – which in turn can cause potentially harmful currents in cables, electronic devices and the electrical grid.

For example, a coronal mass ejection in September 1859 set off a record-breaking geomagnetic storm that hit telegraph networks across Europe and North America — and the link between them was only the previous year.

Currents caused by the space weather reporters caused telegraph masts to spark, operators to receive an electric shock and many connections to fail completely.

In some areas, telegraph operators were still able to send and receive messages – even though they had disconnected power from their machines – thanks to the electrical currents created by the storm.

Unlike the copper that made up Victorian-era telegraph lines, long-distance Internet connections typically operate along fiber optic cables, bouncing light pulses off the inside of silicon strands to transmit information.

As a result, the cables themselves are not directly sensitive to magnetically induced currents. But, explains Professor Abdu Jyothi, the same cannot be said about the ‘repeaters’ placed every 30-90 miles along long-haul routes.

These devices act as signal amplifiers that amplify the optical signal along the cable at regular intervals so that it does not deteriorate too much by the time it reaches the other end of the connection.

Repeaters are built with electronic components, which means they can be damaged by power surges caused by a solar storm. If enough falls along a given fiber optic cable, the link would become non-functional.

Submarine cables are more susceptible to this risk for a number of reasons – the main one being that most land-based fiber optic cables are so short that they don’t require on-site repeaters.

But then there’s the fact that underwater cables are generally grounded less often than their land-based counterparts, which gives them weaker protection against electrical surges.

In addition, the varying composition of the seabed can make sound grounding stations more effective than others.

Because the Internet is a distributed system, local connections would still function even if a solar storm knocked out long-distance fiber optic cables.  However, Internet services - such as, for popular examples, Google and Facebook - that require access to large-scale data centers in specific regions can easily be cut off from some users (stock image)

Since the Internet is a distributed system, local connections would still function even if a solar storm knocked out long-distance fiber optic cables. However, Internet services – such as, for popular examples, Google and Facebook – that require access to large-scale data centers in specific regions can easily be cut off from some users (stock image)

According to WIRED, Professor Abdu Jyothi was inspired to explore how much damage a solar storm could do to the internet after seeing how unprepared the world was for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as the world had no established protocol for dealing with the virus, she explained, the resilience of our internet infrastructure is unprepared for a massive solar event — leaving her wondering what the cost would be.

To investigate, the computer scientist collected data from a variety of sources, including maps of the world’s submarine cables, land transmission lines, and Internet infrastructure such as data centers, DNS root servers, and routers.

Finally, she compared estimated impacts at different latitudes with gridded data on global populations to determine how many people might be affected by outages.

To investigate this, Professor Abdu Jyothi collected data from various sources, including maps of the world's submarine cables, land transmission lines and internet infrastructure such as data centers (pictured), DNS root servers and routers

To investigate this, Professor Abdu Jyothi collected data from various sources, including maps of the world’s submarine cables, land transmission lines and internet infrastructure such as data centers (pictured), DNS root servers and routers

“A powerful solar superstorm could cause a massive disruption to the Internet,” Professor Abdu Jyothi concluded in her paper.

“Paying attention to this threat and planning defenses against it, like our first attempt in this article, is critical to the long-term resilience of the Internet.”

Since the Internet is a distributed system, local connections would still function even if long-distance fiber optic cables were out of order.

However, Internet services — such as, for popular examples, Google and Facebook — that require access to large-scale data centers in specific regions may be shut down for some users.

Unlike Google, Facebook’s data centers are less evenly distributed around the world — with none in Africa or South America, for example — making the platform more vulnerable in the event of widespread network outages.

The full findings of the study were presented at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)’s SIGCOMM 2021 conference, which will be held virtually from August 23-27.

THE CARRINGTON EVENT OF 1859

The sun is capable of producing monstrous eruptions that can disrupt radio communications and power supplies here on Earth.

The largest observed outburst occurred in September 1859, with massive amounts of hot plasma from our neighboring star hitting Earth.

On September 1, 1859, astronomers observed how one of the dark spots on the sun’s surface suddenly lit up and shone brilliantly across the sun’s surface.

This phenomenon had never been seen before and no one knew what was coming. On the morning of September 2, the first particles of what we now know, a massive eruption on the sun, reached Earth.

The solar storm of 1859 is also known as the ‘Carrington Event’.

Auroras associated with this event could be seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii, the global telegraph system went haywire, and ice core records from Greenland indicate that Earth’s protective ozone layer was being damaged by the energetic particles of the Earth. solar storm.

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