Next solar superstorm could induce ‘internet apocalypse’, researcher warns

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While humans are protected from solar storms by the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, they still have the potential to cause immense damage to infrastructure which could induce an “internet apocalypse,” new research finds.

The report, entitled ‘Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse’, states that “one of the greatest dangers facing the Internet for global impact is a powerful solar superstorm.”

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The internet is a crucial part of global infrastructure, and an outage has the potential to cause serious social and economic damage.

“The economic impact of an internet disruption for a day in the US is estimated to be over $7 billion,” the study’s author, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi from the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research, wrote.

Two of the world’s largest solar superstorm events occurred in 1921 and 1859. On both occasions the storms triggered wide-scale power outages and extensive damage to the communication networks that were available at the time. Today, greater dependence is placed on access to the communication technology now available.

“The probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events that directly impact the earth is estimated to be 1.6 percent to 12 percent per decade,” she wrote. “Since this low phase of solar activity coincided with the rapid growth of technology on the earth, we have a limited understanding of whether the current infrastructure is resilient against powerful CMEs [Coronal Mass Ejection, also known as a solar storm].”

“What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic we saw how unprepared the world was. There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, and it’s the same with internet resilience,” Abdu Jyothi told online news media WIRED.

“Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event,” she added.

According to the paper, local and regional internet connections are at a relatively lower risk of being damaged because fiber optic cables are not affected by currents that are induced geomagnetically.

However, subsea internet cables that connect continents are at higher risk because they are “equipped with repeaters to boost the optical signal, spaced at intervals of roughly 30 to 90 miles (50 to 150 kilometers),” a report on online news media Live Science read. “These repeaters are vulnerable to geomagnetic currents, and entire cables could be made useless if even one repeater goes offline, according to the paper.”

If undersea cables fail in one region, it could cause entire continents to be cut off from each other. Nations such as the US and the United Kingdom are at high latitudes and are more susceptible to this kind of damage because they are more likely to experience solar weather than nations at lower latitudes.

It is hard to predict how long it would take to repair such widespread damage to underwater infrastructure, but the report’s author suggested that large-scale internet outages that could last for weeks or months are a definite possibility.

Avoiding an internet apocalypse

Abdu Jyoti believes that this risk can be mitigated by preparing the current and future infrastructure for “an eventual catastrophe to facilitate disaster management.”

“During topology design, we need to increase capacity in lower latitudes for improved resiliency during solar storms (although latency is higher). Moreover, since links from the US and Canada to Europe and Asia are highly vulnerable, adding more links to Central and South America can help in maintaining global connectivity. South America is more likely to maintain connectivity to Europe and Africa,” she said.

In addition, she suggests that the landing points of subsea cables be adjusted, particularly in the low latitudes.

“It is important to have mechanisms for electricity isolating cables connecting to higher latitudes from the rest, to prevent cascading failures,” she wrote.

“Data center and application service providers should be cognizant of solar threats during new deployments. We need to develop standardized tests for measuring end-to-end resiliency of applications under such extreme events. Specifically, systematic modeling of potential disruptions to the Internet, from the physical layer to various applications, through collaborations between astrophysicists, electrical engineers, and networking researchers is critical for improving Internet resiliency.”

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