Study warns of ‘internet apocalypse’ and global outages from solar storms

2 Sep 2021

Image: © jim/Stock.adobe.com

Researcher Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi said a super solar storm could result in long-term, global damage to internet infrastructure with monumental costs.

A new paper has warned that humanity needs to prepare its internet infrastructure for future solar storms or risk a crippling global communication outage. If the researcher is correct, an unexpected solar event has the capacity to knock out the world’s internet with untold costs and ramifications, resulting in what she has dubbed an internet apocalypse.

The paper, ‘Solar superstorms: planning for an Internet apocalypse’, was presented as part of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) online conference. Within it, author Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi highlighted that a single day of internet outage in the US is estimated to cost $7bn. An extended and global outage would cost much more.

The researcher focused on coronal mass ejections (CMEs), more commonly known as solar storms. She calculated likely outcomes of a direct hit from a solar storm by looking at the distribution of internet infrastructure, population data and infrastructure resilience. This allowed Abdu Jyothi to estimate which areas would likely be worst hit and how connectivity issues would play out between continents.

How likely is an internet apocalypse ?

Understanding the likelihood and actual ramifications of these solar storms is difficult, as a CME has never hit the Earth while internet infrastructure was active (although there was a near-miss in July 2012). As solar storms are highly directional, it would be necessary for the event to hit the Earth head-on.

The first recorded solar storm hit the US in 1859. Known as the Carrington event, it caused widespread telegraph problems. Even when the power was disconnected, there was enough current in the system from the solar storm to send messages.

If a Carrington-scale event hit the US today, estimates predict a loss of power for 20m to 40m people for as long as two years. This would cost anywhere between $600bn and $2.6trn. That isn’t even accounting for internet loss.

‘Paying attention to this threat and planning defences against it, like our preliminary effort in this paper, is critical for the long-term resilience of the internet’
– SANGEETHA ABDU JYOTHI

Meanwhile, CMEs could knock out underwater cables across the globe. Repairs to this essential internet infrastructure currently can take anywhere from days to weeks, and that is only when a single node is damaged. Trying to carry out these repairs while global internet infrastructure is offline would be no easy task.

It is also important to note that the sun has been particularly dormant in the past few decades but this is due to change as it enters a more active period. This is why Abdu Jyothi is currently so concerned about an internet apocalypse. With estimates placing the likelihood of a large-scale event per decade at 1.6pc to 12pc, she emphasised the need for plans to be put in place.

What technology would be damaged?

The primary danger, said Abdu Jyothi, was to underwater sea cables and communication satellites.

The satellites orbiting the Earth would have little protection to a strong blast from the Sun and would likely suffer lost connectivity, damage to electrical components and could even be knocked from the skies in a worst-case scenario. She said this would be particularly likely in low-orbit satellites such as Starlink.

Sea cables, on the other hand, run between continents and countries and keep the world connected. While the cables are immune from direct solar events, they could be sensitive to strong electric currents created if a solar event hits the Earth’s magnetic field.

Since these are fibre-optic cables, they rely on light rather than electricity. It is necessary to spread repeaters between these cables, however, which do use electricity. If a solar event generated electricity that hits these repeaters, it is likely the amplitude would be 100 times greater than what they are designed for.

This would blow out their operations in affected areas. Rather than protecting the underwater cables, seawater’s high conductivity would add to the problem, increasing the impact from the solar storm.

What can be done to prevent damage?

A prominent issue in our current set-up is the location of internet infrastructure. With increasing melting of Arctic ice, more and more cables are being put at higher latitudes. While this improves latency, it also puts the cables in areas more likely to suffer during solar storms.

Because of this, Abdu Jyothi recommended putting internet cables in Central and South America to ensure connectivity in the event of a solar storm.

A warning system could also mitigate damage. Solar storms take some time – between 13 hours and three days – to reach the Earth. By powering off infrastructure temporarily, it could provide limited protection to systems.

She also suggested designing more resilient systems that can be pieced together from different operating parts. This would allow a faster recovery in the event of an internet apocalypse as different components come back online gradually.

“Paying attention to this threat and planning defences against it, like our preliminary effort in this paper, is critical for the long-term resilience of the internet”, concluded Abdu Jyothi.

“Several challenges remain open in this space. How can we model infrastructure failures more accurately? How do we factor in solar threat during internet infrastructure and systems design? How can we help operators in making disaster preparation and recovery plans? We anticipate that this paper will provide an initial impetus towards answering these important questions.”

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

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