Solar storms or coronal mass ejections are known to cause damage to electrical grids and cause blackouts, however, experts are of the belief that they could also adversely affect the internet infrastructure, causing a global internet outage.
This was revealed by the University of California, Irvine’s Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference last week. She revealed, in her research, that even though local and regional internet infrastructure would be at low risk of damage during extreme solar storms as they mostly use fibre optic cables and are not affected by geomagnetically induced currents. Even short cable spans that are susceptible to these storms are grounded regularly, eliminating the possibility of damage.
However, the same cannot be said for undersea cables that connect continents together. Even though most of these continents are connected via fibre optic cables, the repeaters that amplify the current at regular intervals are highly susceptible to failure, and if most of these repeaters on a network go offline, it could be enough to create an internet blackout in a particular nation that only relies on the internet coming from undersea cables.
Abdu Jyothi said in a conversation with the WIRED, “What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic we saw how unprepared the world was. 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. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be.”
One of the main reasons this fear exists is because of the limited amount of data we have at our hands. The previously recorded severe solar storms include the ones that occurred in 1859, 1921 and the most recent one in 1989.
During the 1859 event, even there didn’t exist power grids like they do today, however, historical literature reveals that the storms caused compass needles to swing uncontrollably as well as many saw the aurora borealis — an occurrence seen only at the poles of our planet — in Columbia, at the equator.
The most recent solar storm that occurred in 1989 took down a Hydro-Quebec power grid causing a nine-hour power blackout in northeast Canada. And after seeing decades-long low-solar-storm activity, experts fear that we could soon be on the verge of experiencing another massive solar storm.
Abdu Jyothi added, “There are no models currently available of how this could play out. We have more understanding of how these storms would impact power systems, but that’s all on land. In the ocean, it’s even more difficult to predict.”
Even though internet connectivity is designed in a way that if one pathway fails, it has a way to reroute the network (at the cost of speed) and maintain the connectivity. Experts feel that with a massive outage, most of the grids could go offline, limiting the internet to create the necessary link.