A severe solar storm, which happens once in approximately 100 years, could catastrophically impact various human technologies on Earth, and plunge the world into an “internet apocalypse,” a new study says.
In recent history, only such storms have been recorded in 1857 and the other in 1921.
The Earth’s magnetic field protects its inhabitants from solar wind – consisting of charged particles streaming from the Sun – by deflecting the electric wind towards the planet’s poles and creating scenic auroras.
However, once in about 80-100 years, due to the Sun’s natural life cycle, these winds escalate into solar superstorms that could cause catastrophic internet outages covering the entire Earth and lasting several months, says the study, presented at SIGCOMM 2021 – the annual conference of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication.
In the research, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi from the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research, assessed the robustness of the current Internet infrastructure against such an extreme space weather event.
It found that long-distance optical fibre lines and submarine cables which are a vital part of the global internet infrastructure are vulnerable to the currents produced on the Earth’s crust by solar superstorms, also known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).
The current from these solar storms can enter and damage long conductors such as power lines, the study noted.
While the probability of such events happening varies from 1.6 per cent to 12 per cent probability per decade, Jyothi says the chances increase during the Sun’s maximum activity period in its waxing and waning cycle.
Luckily, Jyothi says, modern technological advances have coincided with a period of weak solar activity.
However, with the sun expected to become more active in the near future, she says the current Internet infrastructure has not been stress-tested by strong solar events.
Studies have documented the significant damages caused by these solar storms to the communication network of the time – the telegraph network.
The current solar cycle, the study says, has the potential to be one of the strongest on record.