Global Internet May Suffer “Apocalypse” Caused by Solar Storms | Science

A coronal mass ejection from the Sun could cause geomagnetic storms on Earth and severely damage the Internet infrastructure. This extreme event could also damage power transmission lines and satellites, but the damage to communications, especially submarine cables, would be much more severe.

Coronal mass expulsion occurred in 2012
2012 Coronal Mass Ejection (Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Flickr)

It has long been known that such an event can threaten satellites and electrical equipment. THE new research – by scientist Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California at Irvine and presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 conference – examines in more detail the impacts on the Internet infrastructure.

Submarine cable repeaters are the big deal

Local distribution networks would suffer in the event of such a solar storm, as they largely use optical fibers, which are not affected by magnetic field disturbances. The biggest problem would be in undersea cables, which connect continents and carry most of the data. Therefore, even if local networks remained intact or with minor damage, entire countries could be disconnected from the Internet.

And the problem isn’t even with the submarine cables themselves: after all, they also use optical fiber. The problem is with repeaters, devices that are found every 50-150 kilometers of cables and serve to amplify the signal and make it arrive at its destination.

Google submarine cable
Google submarine cable (Image: Google / Playback)

The electronic components of these devices are vulnerable to disturbances in magnetic fields. If they fail, the cables become useless.

Being underwater doesn’t help, in fact, it does, as seawater is highly conductive and a disturbance in the magnetic field would generate electric currents. Incidentally, these currents would also affect the equipment powering the repeaters, causing overload and damaging these signal amplifiers.

An important point is that these facilities are difficult to access. Submarine cables are also designed to be replaced every 25 years, given the work required to install them on the seabed. As a result, replacing these damaged repeaters could take days or even weeks. Since such an event could also put satellites out of service, many regions would be left with no alternatives.

Brazil would remain linked to Europe, but not to the USA

A large-magnitude solar storm would cause some regions to suffer more than others. This is because high latitudes are more susceptible to the effects of a magnetic field perturbation, albeit of a more moderate degree. Abdu Jyothi’s research also takes this into account.

The work found that Asia may be less affected in such an episode, as Singapore serves as a hub for networks and is located near the equator.

On the other hand, regions with a higher concentration of equipment are located in higher latitudes and there is a high probability that the United States will be disconnected from Europe. The connections within the Old Continent should pass without further damage. Australia and islands like New Zealand and Hawaii could lose most of their long-distance connections.

Abdu Jyothi also described what can happen to Brazil in an extreme situation:

“Interestingly, even with serious flaws, Brazil would retain its connectivity with Europe and other parts of South America, such as Argentina. However, it would lose its connectivity with North America. It is also interesting to note that the US would lose its connectivity with Europe in this scenario, but Brazil would not. This is because the Ellalink cable, which connects Brazil to Portugal, is 6,200 km long, while the cable that connects Florida to Portugal is much longer, at 9,833 km ”.

Even so, no one would be 100% sure, as routing systems would likely be overloaded. DNS servers, being widely distributed across the planet, are less vulnerable. It’s a similar case with Google’s data centers, which are less susceptible than the more geographically distributed Facebook’s.

Ellalink submarine cable, connecting Brazil to Europe
Ellalink submarine cable, connecting Brazil to Europe (Image: Ellalink / Reproduction)

Other coronal mass ejections have already reached Earth

Coronal mass ejection is the name given to large eruptions of ionized gas from the Sun. This material becomes part of the solar wind and, once it reaches the Earth’s magnetic field, can cause geomagnetic storms, momentary disturbances in this part of our planet. This, in turn, would cause electrical currents induced by geomagnetism, causing damage to the electrical grid.

One difficulty in predicting what would happen in these cases is that there is little data, as such events are rare. Even so, there are some records of them.

One of the most exemplary cases was the so-called Carrington event, in 1859. At the time, compasses went crazy, telegraphs stopped working, and even auroras were seen in regions near the equator. in 1921, another storm caused blackouts and damage to telegraphs.

A recent event with minor damage occurred in 1989, when it caused blackouts in the United States and Canada. In 2012, a solar storm could have hit Earth, but it missed our planet for just nine days.

The probability of such an event hitting the Earth ranges from 1.6% to 12% per decade, according to research by Abdu Jyothi. In the past 30 years there has been a decline in solar activity, which coincided with the technological development of the planet. In the near future, however, the trend is for the star to become more active, also increasing the chances of a new storm.

Given the rarity of these events, they are not a priority when thinking about risk mitigation. As he explains to the Thomas Overbye magazine of Texas A&M University Wired, electricity grid operators have become more aware of this over the past decade. Even so, extreme weather events and cyber attacks top the list of issues to address.

With information: Wired through Ars Technique