A new paper from an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine details the potential effects that a solar superstorm could have on our heavily internet-reliant world.
The conclusion? A particularly strong solar storm could have devastating effects on undersea internet cables, a crucial component of the world's internet infrastructure. Without stronger mitigation efforts against these effects, the study claims we could be headed towards an "internet apocalypse."
Solar storms and the electrical grid
Solar storms, also known as geomagnetic storms, cause massive solar flares which result in coronal mass ejections (CMEs), large expulsions of magnetic fields, and plasma. Massive solar tsunamis on the surface of the Sun can send particularly strong CMEs hurtling towards Earth at speeds of up to several million miles per hour. While the Earth's atmosphere protects us against the radioactive effects of such storms, they can cause havoc to our electronics.
These solar superstorms have the potential to cause long blackouts, as solar winds batter the Earth's magnetosphere causing millions or even trillions of dollars of damage to electrical equipment including satellites. And it's not just a hypothetical scenario. In 1989, a solar storm was responsible for cutting off the electrical supply to over 6 million people for nine hours in and around Québec. It even halted the Toronto Stock Exchange for three hours by disrupting what was supposed to be a "fault-tolerant" computer.
What would an "internet apocalypse" look like?
In her paper, titled "Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse," Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine presents a hypothetical scenario in which internet outages could persist for long periods after strong solar storms, even lasting for prolonged periods after power returns to the grid.
Abdu Jyothi states that regional internet infrastructure is actually surprisingly robust against solar storms. This is because optical fiber isn't affected by the geomagnetically induced currents that are typical of solar storms. However, the electronic repeaters used to amplify the optical signals in long undersea cables are very vulnerable to those currents, and a strong solar storm has the potential to cut worldwide connectivity by disrupting these cables.
In an interview with WIRED, Abdu Jyothi pointed out that she started thinking about the effects of solar storms on our internet infrastructure when she saw how unprepared the world was for the COVID-19 pandemic. "Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be," Abdu Jyothi explained.
A lack of data
As geomagnetic storms are relatively rare, we only have data from three large events in relatively recent times: the previously mentioned 1989 Québec outage, and events in 1921 and 1859. All of these occurred before the advent of the modern internet.
Not only are undersea cables vulnerable, but services such as SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service would also be particularly vulnerable to a solar superstorm, as they orbit 340 miles (550 kilometers) above the Earth's surface. Abdu Jyothi points out that there are currently no models for how exactly a strong solar storm would play out in today's internet-reliant environment. She hopes her study will lead to a renewed focus from global industries on the potentially destructive effects of solar storms on our world's connectivity.
Crucially, Abdu Jyothi says that as the last strong solar storm occurred over three decades ago we may be close to the next incident that could cause massive outages, potentially leading to trillions of dollars in damages to electronics and lost revenue from internet blackouts — according to Forbes, internet outages could cost $7.2 billion per day to the US economy. This is a number that will only rise, particularly as the world has increasingly turned to remote work amid the ongoing pandemic.