In Becky Chambers’ 2019 novel “To Be Taught, If Fortunate”, a massive solar storm wipes out the internet on Earth, leaving a group of astronauts stranded in space with no way to call home. It’s a terrifying prospect, but could a solar storm knock out the internet in real life? And if so, what is the probability of this happening?
Yes, it could happen, but it would take a giant solar storm, Mathew Owens, a solar physicist at the University of Reading in the UK, told Live Science. “You would really need a huge event to do that, which isn’t impossible,” Owens said. “But I think removing power grids is more likely.” In fact, this phenomenon has already occurred on a small scale.
Solar storms, also known as space weather, occur when the Sun unleashes an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation. This disturbance projects waves of energy that travel outward, impacting other bodies in the solar system, including Earth. When wayward electromagnetic waves interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, they have several effects.
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One is that they circulate electrical currents through Earth’s upper atmosphere, heating the air “just like how your electric blanket works,” Owens said. These geomagnetic storms can create magnificent auroras appear over the polar regions, but they can also disrupt radio signals and GPS. Additionally, as the atmosphere warms, it swells like a marshmallow, adding extra drag to satellites in low Earth orbit and deflecting small bits of space junk.
The other impact of space weather is more terrestrial. When powerful electric currents pass through the upper atmosphere of our planet, they induce powerful currents which also pass through the earth’s crust. This can interfere with electrical conductors above the crust, such as power grids – the network of transmission lines that carry electricity from power stations to homes and buildings. This results in localized power outages that can be difficult to resolve; such an event hit Quebec City on March 13, 1989, resulting in a 12-hour power outage, according to Nasa (opens in a new tab). More recently, a Solar eruption knocked out 40 Starlink satellites when SpaceX did not verify space weather forecasts, Live Science previously reported.
Fortunately, removing a few Starlink satellites is not enough to disrupt global Internet access. In order to completely wipe out the internet, a solar storm would have to interfere with the ultra-long fiber optic cables that stretch under the oceans and connect the continents. Every 30 to 90 miles (50 to 145 kilometers), these cables are fitted with repeaters that help boost their signal as it travels. While the cables themselves are not vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, the repeaters are. And if a repeater goes out, it could be enough to pull out the whole cable, and if enough cables disconnect, it could cause a “internet apocalypse“, Live Science previously reported.
A global internet outage would be potentially catastrophic – it would disrupt everything from the supply chain to the medical system to the stock market and people’s basic ability to work and communicate.
There are several ways to protect the internet against the next mega solar storm. The first is to protect power grids, satellites and submarine cables from overload due to the influx of current, including safeties to strategically shut down grids during solar storm surge.
The second, less expensive way is to develop a better way to predict long-term solar storms.
Can we predict solar storms?
Solar storms are also notoriously difficult to predict. In part, they can be “very hard to pin down,” Owens said. “Because while space weather has been around for thousands of years, the technology that affects it has only been around for a few decades.”
Current technology can predict solar storms up to two days before they hit Earth based on the activity of sunspots, black spots on the surface of the sun that indicate areas of high plasma activity. But scientists can’t track solar storms the way they do hurricanes. Instead, they look to other clues, such as the position of the sun in its current solar cycle. NASA and the European Space Agency are currently researching ways to make such predictions using a combination of historical data and more recent observations.
The sun goes through cycles of about 11 years of higher or lower activity, depending on the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (opens in a new tab), and its next peak of activity, known as solar maximum, is expected to be around 2025. However, recent solar maximums have been relatively mild, leading scientists to suspect that our sun may be in a prolonged period of low activity. “The Sun has been pretty quiet since the 90s,” Owens said. The last (at least recorded) global geomagnetic storm is the so-called “Carrington Eventof 1859, in which auroras were observed as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, Hawaii. If the internet had existed during this event, chances are it was seriously disrupted.
Hopefully, scientists will be able to find a way to predict or minimize the impact of the next Carrington event before we find ourselves in a future without the internet…although, given the terrible depth of social media, there may -be of worse fates.
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