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Monday, September 20, 2021

Explained: Can a solar storm disrupt an internet connection?

Solar Storm 2021: The rapid development of technology took place in the last three decades when the Sun was in its period of low activity and there are very limited studies on whether our current infrastructure can withstand a powerful solar storm.

Written by Aswathi Pacha , Edited by Explained Desk | Kochi |
Updated: September 14, 2021 12:38:12 pm
Solar Storm 2021Massive Solar Storm 2021: A solar storm is an ejection of highly magnetised particles from the sun. (Source: NASA, File)

Impact of solar storm could be a threat to the internet. Everything you need to know: After witnessing a pandemic, locust attack and cicada invasion in 2020, meme pages quipped that human beings are resilient and could even survive an alien attack. But can we survive without our internet? No, not aliens, but our very own Sun has the power to cause an ‘internet apocalypse’, according to a new study.

The paper presented at the ACM SIGCOMM 2021 Conference last month noted that a powerful solar storm can cause a disruption of the internet, damage submarine cables and communication satellites. Previous studies have shown that there is a 1.6 to 2 per cent chance of an extreme space weather event happening within the next decade.

What is a solar storm?

A solar storm or a Coronal Mass Ejection as astronomers call it, is an ejection of highly magnetised particles from the sun. These particles can travel several million km per hour and can take about 13 hours to five days to reach Earth.

Earth’s atmosphere protects us humans from these particles. But the particles can interact with our Earth’s magnetic field, induce strong electric currents on the surface and affect man-made structures.

The first recorded solar storm occurred in 1859 and it reached Earth in about 17 hours. It affected the telegraph network and many operators experienced electric shocks. A solar storm that occurred in 1921 impacted New York telegraph and railroad systems and another small-scale storm collapsed the power grid in Quebec, Canada in 1989.

A 2013 report noted that if a solar storm similar to the 1859 one hit the US today, about 20-40 million people could be without power for 1-2 years, and the total economic cost will be $0.6-2.6 trillion.

Solar activity

The rapid development of technology took place in the last three decades when the Sun was in its period of low activity and there are very limited studies on whether our current infrastructure can withstand a powerful solar storm.

“The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle – cycles of high and low activity. It also has a longer 100-year cycle. During the last three decades, when the internet infrastructure was booming, it was a low period. And very soon, either in this cycle or the next cycle, we are going towards the peaks of the 100-year cycle. So it is highly likely that we might see one powerful solar storm during our lifetime,” explains the author of the paper, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, on a Zoom call. She is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science department at the University of California, Irvine.

India vs Internet

She explains that longer submarine cables may be susceptible to higher risks. Modelling studies to understand how connectivity will be affected country-scale showed that the majority of cables connecting India will be unaffected. “Even under the high-failure scenario, some international connectivity remains (e.g., India to Singapore, Middle East, etc.). Unlike in China, the key cities of Mumbai and Chennai do not lose connectivity even with high failures,” the paper adds.

She explains that compared to the US, India is less vulnerable, but we don’t know much about the strength of solar storms and whether a powerful one can affect India. “The countries in the lower latitudes are at a much lower risk. But we need more studies to fully understand the effects. I’m a computer scientist, and my models show that Asia is safe. But what is the threshold, I cannot say. We need new models that merge astrophysics, electrical engineering, and understanding of the ocean features,” she adds.

How to save our internet?

Recently, it was assessed that Internet disruption for a day in the US can cause about $7 billion economic loss. The new paper mentions a ‘shutdown strategy’ that can help minimise the connectivity loss during and after a solar storm impact. Similar to how we power off power grids, a temporary Internet shutdown can protect our equipment during a solar event and ensure the continuation of services.

“We need a more systematic protocol for doing this. Both NASA and the European Space Agency have probes now that can detect a solar storm. So we can get about 13 hours of warning. Experts from different fields need to come together to design protocols for power companies and internet service providers. Also, today’s health care system depends on power and the internet and we need a fallback strategy,” she explains.

Prof Dibyendu Nandi from the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, Kolkata underlines the importance of the study when it comes to the vulnerability of “our critical internet backbone, namely undersea fibre-optic cables”. “At ground level, solar storm-induced geomagnetic variations can induce large currents in networks that can conduct electricity. This is potentially harmful. Although fibre-optic internet cables are themselves not conductors, the study claims that electronic components that are part of such networks can still be rendered useless by a very strong solar storm,” explains Prof Nandi who is part of The Center of Excellence in Space Sciences India at IISER Kolkata which is involved in developing the understanding necessary for making solar storm predictions.

“Independent solar observations show that solar superstorms capable of such large-scale damage may occur only a few times in a century. Nevertheless, given their potential to cause large-scale disruption to our modern society, such studies help us prepare and take steps for reducing their impact,” he adds.

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