A new study has concluded that if a particularly large solar storm were to happen, it could mean the worst thing imaginable – the global internet could go down. In a paper published to SIGCOMM 21, researchers from the University of California detail the devastating effects a geomagnetic storm could have on the world’s underwater cables, blocking the flow of information and darkening a world that relies so desperately on the internet. They believe their new research should highlight the need for strong mitigation technologies to prevent this from happening.
The idea behind geomagnetic storms damaging electrical equipment is not new to science. It is well-documented that large ejections from the sun’s surface, called coronal mass ejections (CME), could pose a great risk to satellites and potentially disrupt power. However, it was never clear whether it could damage internet infrastructure and prevent communications.
In the new paper, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi explores how solar superstorms could affect submarine cables. The global internet relies on a complex network of cables laid across the ocean floors, connecting countries together. Should these cables be disrupted, it is possible for an entire internet blackout, spelling disaster for almost every aspect of daily life.
A solar flare is caused by huge waves of hot plasma ejecting from the sun, sending a wave of electromagnetic radiation outwards. These waves reach Earth in just eight minutes but are blocked by the ionosphere and the upper atmosphere. However, larger events are called CME, and they release not only electromagnetic radiation but solar matter and their magnetic field too. As they blast through space, they often travel in one direction, and should Earth's be unfortunate enough to stray into their path, they can disrupt the magnetic field and interfere with electrical equipment.
Such storms have occurred in the past, but they are rare. The largest storm of the 20th Century caused huge damage across the globe, heavily impacting the railroad system in the US, while smaller storms have reportedly taken out entire power grids in Canada.
By analyzing the Earth’s internet infrastructure, the paper concludes that a large CME could cause a complete global internet outage, persisting for a lengthy period of time after the storm is over. That isn’t to say we’d be stuck in the dark – regional internet would likely remain online, as optical fibers are not affected by solar storms.
The US would likely be hit the hardest, owing to their reliance on submarine cables to connect them to Europe, while Europe and Asia may fare better due to their land connections. Google would likely stay afloat, but Facebook (which has data centers relatively close together) would suffer serious connection issues.
Sounds bad, right? Unfortunately, Jyothi has more bad news. According to researchers, the probability of a storm large enough to cause such widespread disruption occurring is 1.6-12 percent per decade, which is far higher than many would like. The research suggests the internet needs to be better protected against such an event, and solar storms should be considered when designing internet infrastructure.