A ‘Solar Tsunami’ Could Knock Out Global Internet. Here’s What That Means

According to a new paper, prepared by an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, a solar super storm has the tendency to severely affect our heavily internet-reliant world.

The study claimed that a particularly strong solar storm could have devastating effects on undersea internet cables, a crucial component of the world’s internet infrastructure.

It further claimed that without stronger mitigation efforts against these effects, we could be headed towards an “internet apocalypse.”

The paper has been titled as “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse” by the University of California, Irvine’s Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi.

In addition, Abdu Jyothi had announced about the new paper at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference held last week.

In her research, she presented a hypothetical scenario in which internet outages could persist for long periods after strong solar storms, even lasting for prolonged periods after power returned to the grid. In addition, she also pointed out that the local and regional internet infrastructure would be at low risk of damage during extreme solar storms as they mostly use fibre optic.

She further explained in her study, as to why the regional internet infrastructure was actually surprisingly robust against solar storms. This was because the optical fiber was not affected by the geomagnetically induced currents that were typical of solar storms. However, the electronic repeaters used to amplify the optical signals in long undersea cables were very vulnerable to those currents, and a strong solar storm had the potential to cut worldwide connectivity by disrupting these cables.

As per the research, if most of these repeaters on a network went offline, it could be enough to create an internet blackout for those who rely only on the internet coming from the undersea cables.

In an interview, Abdu Jyothi pointed out that she started thinking about the effects of solar storms on our internet infrastructure when she saw how unprepared the world was for the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, “Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be.”

Regarding the solar storms, they are also known as geomagnetic storms. They cause massive solar flares which result in coronal mass ejections (CMEs), large expulsions of magnetic fields, and plasma. The massive solar tsunamis on the surface of the sun can send particularly strong CMEs hurtling towards Earth, at speeds of up to several million miles per hour. While the Earth’s atmosphere protects us against the radioactive effects of such storms, they can cause havoc to our electronics.

Moreover, the previously recorded severe solar storms had occurred long back in 1859, 1921 and the most recent one in 1989. The solar storm that occurred in 1989 took down a Hydro-Quebec power grid causing a nine-hour power blackout in northeast Canada.

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