The sun is agitated and this can pose serious problems for internet services around the world, especially in North America, where the cables that transmit digital signals are more exposed to coronal mass ejections. According to SpaceWeather.com, a kind of “solar tsunami” moved the surface of our star last Thursday (08/26), which launched a mass of particles in our direction.
As the star is approximately 150 million km from Earth, the energy wave will reach the planet on Monday (06/09), potentially causing a G1 class geomagnetic storm. The chance of this happening varies between 1.6% and 12%, but if it does, the effects will be catastrophic for internet networks.
Research presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 data conference this week found that North America’s vulnerability to coronal mass ejections could disrupt Internet services for months. It is estimated that for every day without a connection, the US loses about $7.2 billion in an unprecedented crisis.
The Earth has natural defenses against solar flares. When the radiation bursts towards the planet, the magnetosphere sends charged particles to the poles, which creates a kind of lightning rod. The result of absorption is the infamous Northern Lights. However, what happened last Thursday is a little more serious.
Unlike solar flares, coronal mass ejections, caused by rare magnetic storms, create huge clouds of plasma that can severely damage power grids. The electrical supply system was designed to soften the effects of magnetism, but the internet was not.
“The community largely ignored this risk when planning networks and geo-distributed systems such as DNS and data centers,” says the report released at SIGGOM 2021.
The biggest problem, researchers say, is undersea cables, which act as the backbone of the Internet. In the case of a geomagnetic storm, the energy particles would be channeled into the highest latitudes, and that’s precisely where 99% of the strands of the world’s web are found. In Europe, conductors are shorter, which alleviates the problem. However, in North America, the length of the cabling is a considerable unlucky chance.
The last solar events of this magnitude occurred in 1859 and 1921, and drastically damaged the telegraph network. The internet system, on the other hand, has never been tested. If it doesn’t hold up, all of North America, Europe and Asia could be isolated in front of the countries located in the center of the Earth, if the satellites don’t affect everyone.
The report’s authors believe that smaller equipment is especially vulnerable to magnetic explosions. “GPS and communication satellites that are directly exposed to the storm will experience loss of connectivity and may have damaged electronics. In some cases, they can even leave orbit and enter the stratosphere”, they revealed.
For Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, who directs the research, this is a classic example of humans ignoring an imminent threat like the coronavirus.
“We saw, with the pandemic, how the world was unprepared to deal with it effectively. It’s the same thing with the Internet. Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have a very limited understanding of the extent of the damage,” he guaranteed.
If the wave that arrives on Earth next Monday does not hit the grid, it is likely to happen in 2024, when the Sun will reach its next Solar Maximum. The event, which marks the peak of solar flares and CMEs, takes place every 11 years, but unlike the one that took place in 2013, it promises to be one of the largest ever recorded in modern history.