Sunday, September 12, 2021

“Internet Apocalypse”: Solar superstorm can wreak havoc for months!

 A new study reveals that, in addition to drastically affecting traditional electrical networks and communications, a coronal mass ejection – popularly called a “solar storm” – would also be catastrophic for the global internet, which would remain offline even days after electricity was re-established in front of an episode like that.

 In short, solar storms are eruptions of highly ionized gas from the Sun's corona, which are carried into the Earth's magnetic field and completely knocking down electrical, communications networks and such stations, leading to long-lasting blackouts.  The video below shows a practical example of this:

 During the SIGCOMM 2021 event, held at a conference, scientist Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi presented her study “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse” (“Super Solar Storms: Planning the Internet Apocalypse”, in free translation), which postulates a semi-scenario apocalyptic, where undersea fiber optic cables will be especially vulnerable to a large coronal mass ejection event.

 “What really got me thinking about it was the current [Covid-19] pandemic, where with it I saw how unprepared the world was,” Jyothi told WIRED.  “There was no protocol to deal with problems efficiently, and the same goes for the resilience of the internet.  Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event.  We have a very limited understanding of how much damage can occur."

 According to the expert, the problem would be of global scale: she concedes that regional fiber optic stations would be mostly safe, but ocean cables that cross continents would be the most vulnerable.  A solar storm would affect these international internet cables, cutting off the connection supply at the source.  “It's like shutting off a house's water supply by breaking the street plumbing,” she exemplifies.

 Coronal mass ejections are different from solar flares: ejections are ionized clouds of gas dispensed into space at extreme speeds, while flares are flashes of light with tremendous amounts of energy.

 Lack of information is what prevents us from being more assertive about this issue: solar storms occur all the time but rarely reach Earth or, when they do, are not severe enough to affect us in a forceful way.  In modern history, only three more violent cases have been recorded since 1859, when the “Carrington Event” caused compass needles to spin wildly (a sign that a strong solar storm affected the Earth's magnetic field).  In 1929, an even larger event, lasting three days, caused a medium-scale fire in New York's Grand Central Station, also bringing down the city's telegraph network.

 Finally, in 1989, a moderate coronal mass ejection event brought down the Hydro-Québec power grid in northern Canada, leaving the highest part of the country without power for approximately nine hours.  Jyothi argues, however, that after more than 30 years without a major event, it is likely that one is on the way in the next few years.

 What if the Earth is hit by a perfect solar storm?

 Solar storms are happening closer to Earth, and that's a problem.

 Coronal mass ejection events have already been dealt with in pop culture, lightly: the Assassin's Creed game franchise, from French Ubisoft, tied to its narrative an extremely strong ejection that destroyed a civilization before human and, within the game's history , another such event in 2012 would destroy humanity were it not for the player's actions – ironically, a large-scale solar storm did occur even in 2012, but it did not reach Earth (which cannot be said of the STEREO-A spacecraft).

 In reality, a solar storm would not wipe out the human race, but impacting the internet network sets up an extremely worrisome scenario: virtually all communications in the world use radio and internet – both formats very vulnerable to coronal ejection.  Bringing down either one – or both – could isolate entire countries for a considerable amount of time.

 The reason submarine cables are more vulnerable lies in the fact that they all use repeaters at variations between 50 km and 150 km of travel distance.  These repeaters amplify the signal from fiber optic cables, ensuring that nothing gets lost along the way.  While the cables themselves are massive, the same can't be said of the repeaters, whose electronics make them susceptible to a solar storm.

 Starlink Satellite

 Satellites from SpaceX's Starlink would be vulnerable to a solar storm, which would bring down Elon Musk's company's Internet service.

 But that's not even the worst part: the cables are on Earth, but before that, the satellites will feel the first impact of a solar storm, which would bring down not only the satellite internet infrastructure (think of SpaceX's Starlink project, for example ), but global positioning systems (GPS) and spatial observations.

 Normally, Earth's magnetic poles are more concentrated at high latitudes – North Pole (Arctic) and South Pole (Antarctica), for example.  These are usually the points most impacted by a solar storm, unlike, for example, Asia, which has a cable distribution hub in Singapore located on the equator.  However, even this nation has cables distributed to pole regions, which makes it relatively vulnerable.

 “There is no model available today that anticipates how this might happen,” said Abdu Jyothi.  “We have a greater understanding of how these storms can affect energy systems, but this is all here on dry land.  In the ocean, everything is even more difficult to predict”.

 The internet, today, works like a city with huge traffic lanes: if a lane is cut, data is automatically redirected to other points – albeit with reduced speed.  This can help in the event of a more intense solar storm, but internet can still be destabilized by a high-intensity event where bypass points can also experience disruptions that affect essential services such as the Border Gateway Protocol) and the Domain Name System, which would generate service interruptions.

 In a simpler example to understand: imagine the type of traffic jam that would happen if, all of a sudden, all the traffic signs in a city disappeared.

 Jyothi argues that his study is just the first of many more research needed, especially those that will address the issue of the internet infrastructure side and what can be done to nullify – or at least minimize – the impacts of a solar storm.


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