Severe solar storms have been known to damage electric grids and cause widespread power outages, but new research now suggests it can also impact global internet connectivity and result in what the researchers are calling the “Internet Apocalypse.” Sun outages are nothing new, and they are known to affect everything from television broadcasts, stock market transactions, and mobile communications. Most broadcasters, carriers, stock exchanges and other entities that are frequently affected by the phenomenon take that into account during the hardware deployment stage, including installing guards to their receiving systems to prevent equipment damage. Major internet outages also happen from time to time, but never have these been attributed to solar storms.
While Sun outages happen from time to time and can affect satellites in geostationary orbit, cases of solar storms severely affecting earthlings are a relative rarity. One of the most notable examples of that is from 1989, when the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered a blackout because of a solar phenomenon. The blackout happened on March 13, which reportedly followed a powerful explosion on the Sun three days earlier. According to NASA, the explosion released the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time, causing short-wave radio interference, jamming radio signals in Europe, and playing havoc with power grids in Canada and the US.
Now, an assistant computer science professor at the University of California, Irvine, has presented a research paper on how solar phenomena can potentially disrupt global internet services. In a study titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” researcher Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi depicts a future where coronal mass ejections (CMEs), popularly known as solar storms, may cause long-lasting global internet outages that could last days, even if power grids return to normal within hours. As per the research, the undersea cables that digitally connect different continents would be the most affected, even though local and regional fiber optic infrastructure would largely escape any serious damage.
‘Internet Apocalypse’ Would Affect Europe And America More Than Asia And Africa
In an interview with Wired, Abdu Jyothi said that the global internet infrastructure is just not prepared for a large-scale solar event, largely because researchers still have “very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be”. According to her, researchers just do not have any ready-made models available of how large-scale solar storms can affect undersea hardware. “We have more understanding of how these storms would impact power systems, but that’s all on land. In the ocean it’s even more difficult to predict”, she says. The report, however, doesn’t say anything about how such solar phenomena can impact satellite internet services like SpaceX’s Starlink.
Solar storms have more impact at higher latitudes, closer to the Earth’s magnetic poles. This means undersea cables near the tropics or the equator face less risk than cables that cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at high latitudes, which may be vulnerable even to moderate coronal mass ejections. That said, Abdu Jyothi acknowledges that her study has barely scratched the surface of how major solar storms can affect undersea cables, and more research is needed on the subject before anything can be said with absolute certainty. The one thing that is clear, however, is that something on the scale of the 1989 solar storm could cause a prolonged global connectivity outage that could impact nearly everybody on this planet.