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'Internet Apocalypse’: Severe Solar Storm Could Force World Offline for Weeks, Even Months

A severe solar storm will only give the Earth about 13 hours to prepare, say researchers.

'Internet Apocalypse’: Severe Solar Storm Could Force World Offline for Weeks, Even Months

Photo Credit: NASA

The study titled 'Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse' was presented at SIGCOMM 2021

Highlights
  • Extreme space weather could directly impact Earth in the next decade
  • Scientists peg the probability between 1.6 and 12 percent
  • Undersea Internet cables could be severely damaged in such an event

A new study has warned that a super solar storm, which occurs once in about a century, could plunge the world into an “Internet apocalypse”, keeping large swathes of the society offline for weeks or even months. The Sun constantly bombards the Earth with electromagnetic particles. These particles — that make the solar wind — are usually sent to the poles by the Earth's magnetic shield that protects the planet from any real damage. Around every 100 years, this solar wind transforms into a full-blown solar storm, as per researchers, that could have serious consequences for modern life.

The study titled 'Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse' was presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference. Its author Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine, writes that modern technological advancement coincided with a period of weak solar activity and the Sun is expected to become more active in the near future.

Scientists estimate the probability of extreme space weather directly impacting the Earth to be between 1.6 and 12 percent in the next decade. According to the research, regional internet infrastructure would face a low risk of damage even in a massive solar storm since optical fiber itself isn't affected by geomagnetically induced currents. But the risk is higher for long undersea cables. If a solar storm disrupts a number of these cables, it could cause a connectivity outage among countries even while leaving local infrastructure intact.

“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,” Abdu Jyothi was quoted as saying by Wired. The pandemic and the world's unpreparedness to deal with an emergency at the global level made the researcher think about internet resilience.

For a severe solar storm, the Earth will have roughly a 13-hour period to prepare, Abdu Jyothi added. Only two such storms have been recorded in recent history — in 1859 and in 1921.


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