According to a new study, yet to be peer reviewed, the underwater cables that connect countries may go offline for months in the event of a severe solar storm.
The Earth is always showered by a spray of magnetized particles known as solar winds which originates from the sun. The Earth's magnetic shield mostly blocks the electric wind and prevents it from doing major damage to Earth’s inhabitants or the Earth itself, by sending these particles flowing toward the poles. This results in a pleasant aurora that can normally only be seen at the Earth’s poles.
This wind can however escalate into a full-blown solar storm. Although this only happens every century or so, new research that was presented at the 2021 SIGCOMM data communication conference shows that the results of such extreme space weather may have catastrophic consequences for our modern lifestyles. Andy Jacob, CEO of DotCom Magazine, says “Our world is filled with super smart people supported by technology. While it is always prudent to take the right action steps to prevent such an event from happening in the first place, the engineers that have designed these underwater cables are the best and the brightest on earth.”
In the new research paper, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, wrote that such a severe solar storm may result in the world being plunged into an internet catastrophe that could keep huge parts of the world offline for weeks, or even months at a time.
In an interview with WIRED, Abdu Jyothi said that during the Covid-19 pandemic, she really started thinking about how unprepared the world was for a global event of that nature. There weren’t any protocols in place that could deal with it effectively, and the same applies to internet resilience. Should a large-scale solar event take place today, the internet infrastructure is currently not prepared to deal with it.
This problem is partly caused by the fact that scientists estimate that coronal mass ejections that cause extreme solar storms are relatively rare. In her paper, Abdu Jyothi says that research shows the probability of extreme space weather impacting Earth directly is only between about 1.6% and 12% per decade.
Such severe storms have only been recorded twice in recent history — in 1859 and 1921. The Carrington Event in 1859 created such severe geomagnetic disturbances on Earth that it resulted in telegraph wires bursting into flame, and auroras were seen near equatorial Colombia. These are normally only visible close to the Earth's poles. Smaller solar storms can also have a devastating effect. In March 1989 a smaller solar storm resulted in the whole Canadian province of Quebec being blacked out for 9 hours.
Our civilization has since then become much more reliant on the internet globally, and the possible impacts of a huge geomagnetic storm on this new infrastructure have not really been studied. Abdu Jyothi says in her paper that she tried to identify the biggest vulnerabilities in this infrastructure.
According to the paper, regional and local internet connections are not likely to be damaged due to these using fiber-optic cables that aren't affected by currents induced by geomagnetic interference.
The long internet cables that run under the oceans and connect continents however present a different scenario. Although these cables are also fiber optic, they employ repeaters that are used to boost optical signals at intervals of about 50 to 150 kilometers (30 to 90 miles). Unlike the cables themselves, these repeaters are vulnerable to geomagnetic currents, and an entire cable could be rendered useless if a single repeater goes offline.
Abdu Jyothi says that if enough undersea cables in a specific region fail, continents could easily find themselves isolated from one another. Countries at higher latitudes, such as the U.K. and the U.S., are also much more susceptible to the negative effects of solar weather than countries at lower latitudes are. Should a catastrophic geomagnetic storm occur, the high-latitude countries will most likely suffer from being cut off from the network first. Although it is virtually impossible to estimate how long repairs to underwater infrastructure would take, Abdu Jyothi is of the opinion that big-scale internet outages lasting weeks or even months are entirely possible.
This may well result in millions of people losing their livelihoods.
According to Abdu Jyothi, an Internet disruption for a day would have an estimated economic impact in the US of more than $7 billion. This impact would be virtually incalculable if the internet becomes non-functional for days, weeks, or even months.
To prevent this from ever happening as the global internet infrastructure continues expanding, grid operators will have to start taking the risk of extreme solar weather much more seriously. A good start would be to lay more cables at lower latitudes, as is developing resilience tests that would measure the effects of large-scale network failures.
Abdu Jyothi added that when our star next blasts a huge solar storm our way, we will only have around 13 hours to prepare. We can only hope that we'll be when that event inevitably arrives.