Solar flares — eruptions from the sun that send ripples off toward the magnetic field of the Earth — conjure images of disaster and science fiction films. Coronal mass ejections are tied to solar flares, large solar eruptions that are said to fuel most weather events in outer space. Think of them as huge gaseous bubbles that are infused with up to a billion tons of charged particles, hurtling forth at several million miles per hour, according to Inverse.
While we have experienced solar flares and the disruptions they can cause, the cataclysm shown in summertime blockbusters have yet to come to pass. Now, researchers are pointing to what could happen if a major solar storm brought about what can only be called an “Internet apocalypse.”
At the recent SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference, the University of California, Irvine’s Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi gave a presentation titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse.” The talk theorized what would happen if a large cloud of magnetized solar particles affected the world’s Internet connections. Her research points to a shocking reality: like ripples in a disturbed pond, the impacts would reverberate far and wide, hitting everything from transportation to global supply chains to healthcare and beyond, reports Wired’s Lily Hay Newman.
In her coverage of Abdu Jyothi’s work, Newman reports that local Internet infrastructure would be at lower risk given that optical fiber wouldn’t be impacted by “geomagnetically induced currents.” The big risk would be the cables that exist underwater, connecting the Internet continent to continent.
A major solar event disrupting these cables would result in cutting countries off from one another at their source. Local infrastructure within continents would survive, but Newman keenly points out “it would be like cutting flow to an apartment building because of a water main break.”
“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,” Abdu Jyothi told Newman. “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.”
The researcher then said that crucial data routing systems such as the Domain Name System and the Border Gateway Protocol would begin to malfunction in the presence of such a solar wave. Newman refers to this as the “Internet version of the traffic jams that would happen if road signs disappeared and traffic lights went out at busy intersections across a major city.”
The seismic disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic during the past year and a half were a sign that the world’s societies were not prepared for unforeseen catastrophes. If the pandemic is a blueprint, we should start working now to protect and fortify the world’s Internet connections.