The next solar storm could completely shut down the internet

Matheus Manente Matheus Manente 6 min
The next solar storm will completely shut down the internet
Research indicates that the next solar storm could affect the internet’s underwater cables, leaving the entire planet disconnected for months (image: NASA)

It is common that magnetized particles of the sun hit our planet to everytime. The phenomenon, called “solar wind”, is usually harmless – since the magnetic field of our planet is strong enough to block any harmful effect and redirect the particles towards the poles, where they form the auroras.

However, the sun also causes magnetic storms. so intense that cannot be contained by the magnetic field and cause serious damage on surface. These superstorms are usually registered once a century and the most recent was in 1921 – Which means it’s just a matter of forlittle time until another destructive solar storm hits the planet.

The topic was the subject of new research presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference, which launched a alert: With our modern lifestyle, based on the daily use of technology, the results of this extreme space event can be catastrophic.

In summary: A strong solar storm, although very rare, can plunge the world into a “offline apocalypse” and keep society disconnected for months. The probability of a phenomenon of the type directly impacting the Earth rotates between 1.6% The 12% per decade.

The last time such an event happened, the geomagnetic disturbance on Earth was so severe that telegraph wires burst into flames and auroras, usually visible only near the north and south poles, were seen even in Colombia equatorial. In March 1989, a minor storm was able to bring down the entire Canadian province of Quebec by nine o’clock.

With the pandemic, we realized that the world was unprepared. There was no protocol to handle this effectively. I believe the same happens with the Internet, our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. – Dr. Abdu Jyothi to WIRED.

What makes the situation worse is that, in recent decades, human civilization has become extremely dependent on the internet and similar technologies. This means that the impacts of a huge solar storm on this new infrastructure could cause a immeasurable damage in our society.

What are the possible impacts of a solar storm on the planet?

Strong electrical currents formed on the surface can interrupt electricity distribution in several countries, and corrode oil and gas pipelines, causing leaks. Changes in the ionosphere can interfere with radio communications and in the navigation through GPS. Exposure of airplanes and satellites to energetic particles can cause operational anomalies and damage critical equipment.

The good news is that local and regional internet connections have low risk from being damaged, because the fiber optic cables used in these connections are not affected by the phenomenon. However, the long undersea cables connecting continents are much more vulnerable. These cables are equipped with repeaters to boost the optical signal, and are extremely vulnerable to solar storms. whole cables can become useless if one single repeater burn.

It is difficult to predict how long it would take to repair underwater infrastructure after such a phenomenon, but the authors suggest periods of weeks or even months, making millions of people lose their job and causing economic impacts that can easily reach the trillions of dollars around the globe.

See also: Chance of Asteroid Bennu hitting Earth is higher than predicted

It is extremely necessary for operators to start take seriously the threats of an intense solar storm, especially in a society that relies so heavily on the internet. According to the authors, install cables in lower latitudes and test the resistance equipment is already a good starting point.

we will only have 13 hours to prepare when we detect the next big solar storm, and it’s inevitable that it takes place in the next few years. If by then we don’t take all possible preventive measures, we will be caught by surprise again. And if there’s one thing we can say with certainty, it’s that no one needs another global economic crisis.