The next solar storm is predicted to cause an ‘internet apocalypse’
The digital detox we didn’t know we needed?
Have you ever had the cliché of a thought that, perhaps, you were born to the wrong generation? The idea that your disposition might be better suited to a time before the bottomless abyss of TikTok entertainment, smartphones that feel like an extension of your person, maybe even pre-Google (infinite knowledge is overrated, actually)? Well, that time might just be coming around again.
For decades, researchers have been aware of the threat posed by extreme solar storms — the escalated result of a mist of (usually harmless) magnetised particles known as “solar wind” showering down onto the planet — the risks including damaged electrical grids and prolonged blackouts. However, new research suggests that a solar superstorm (an escalation which occurs once every 80-100 years) could cause a series of catastrophic internet outages covering the whole Earth and lasting several months. Maybe more of a digital detox than you had in mind?
Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine presented her research into the subject at the recent SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference, warning that the results of this extreme space weather could prove catastrophic to our current way of life.
"What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic we saw how unprepared the world was,” Sangeetha said in a recent interview with WIRED. “There was no protocol to deal with it effectively, and it's the same with internet resilience. Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event."
Sangeetha’s research shows that local and regional internet infrastructure is at low risk of damage, even in a massive solar storm, because optical fiber itself isn't affected by geomagnetically-induced currents. However, long undersea cables that connect continents are far more vulnerable. “A solar storm that disrupted a number of these cables around the world could cause a massive loss of connectivity by cutting countries off at the source, even while leaving local infrastructure intact. It would be like cutting flow to an apartment building because of a water main break,” senior writer Lily Hay Newman explains in the same WIRED article.
Our lack of experience with these storms puts us at a disadvantage, but the research into them is just beginning, and growing fast. And, according to Sangeetha, there are already things we can do to improve our chances, such as laying more cables at lower latitudes and developing resilience tests that focus on the effects of large-scale network failures. Ok we got this!!! You can read the full report here.
An earlier version of this article misattributed solar storms to the climate crisis. This was incorrect and we apologise for the error.