Solar flares are returning, but now as the world is becoming more dependent on digital networking, is an internet apocalypse expected when the next solar storm happens?
Notorious for damaging teleconnection, it is believable that the current hyper-modernized 21st world is, unfortunately, most vulnerable if a solar storm, or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), were to accelerate.
Solar storms occur when the sun emits bursts of electric charges and magnetic fields. When CMEs are directed towards the Earth, they may travel at speeds of up to 2000 km each second and arrive at our planet after at least 13 hours to five days traveling.
The magnetic field and atmosphere of the Earth shield people from these storms, but they can cause substantial damage to man-made infrastructure.
The last time the earth was struck with such a space-weather catastrophe was nearly 100 years ago, and nearly all telecommunicating systems worldwide were affected.
“The effects were in terms of interference to radio communications, telegraph, and telephone systems, all of which were used in 1921,” Jeffrey Love, a Geophysicist in the Geomagnetism Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told the Independent.
Regarding a superstorm occurring during the current digital world, assistant professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California Irvine feared an apocalypse was inevitable.
“Our [internet] infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event,” Jyothi told Wired.
According to an August report by Jyothi, a hypothetical solar storm will not eradicate the world internet in a heartbeat, but massive disruptions are inevitable.
Jyothi explained in the study that DNS root servers are resilient to solar superstorms, with land cables more robust to such solar strikes than submarine cables, and long-distance connections are more vulnerable to shorter ones.
Judging by how internet infrastructure is built between regions, the report expects local connections in island countries to suffer no impact, but international connections are definitely not guaranteed.
Undoubtedly, communication on satellites is the most vulnerable to CMEs, because they will be directly exposed to highly charged particles, which will be shielded off by the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Threats to communication satellites include damage to electronic components and extra drag on the satellite, particularly in low earth orbit systems such as Starlink, that can cause orbital decay and uncontrolled reentry to earth,” the report reads.
Nonetheless, internet disruption could be highly detrimental, counting the economic cost only. Such a superstorm may result in up to months of impact.
“The economic impact of Internet disruption for a day in the U.S. is estimated to be $7 billion, while the same due to electric grid failure is estimated to be more than $40 billion,” the study said, adding that “even regional failures can result in significant consequences for the broader Internet.”
Jyothi’s study highlights the urgent need to prepare our internet infrastructure and research for solutions to withstand the incoming solar storm.
“Paying attention to this threat and planning defenses against it, like our preliminary effort in this paper, is critical for the long-term resilience of the Internet,” she wrote in her paper.
Meteorologist Matthew Cappucci wrote in the Washington Post that a solar superstorm is most likely to occur around July of 2025.