One of the greatest threats to Internet infrastructure, with the potential for global impact, is a solar superstorm.
Nine years ago, Earth experienced a near miss from a coronal mass ejection (CME), the most powerful in 150+ years.
“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” said Daniel Baker from the University of Colorado.
The ability of a solar storm to damage electrical infrastructure has been known for many years, with three prominent examples since the 1850s.
Previously, solar storms in 1921 and 1989 caused damage to electrical infrastructure. However, we were not as reliant on this infrastructure as we are today.
During a presentation at SIGCOMM 2021, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi from the University of California Irvine explained the potential for solar storms to cause mass internet outages.
Solar storms are infrequent
Solar storms occur when large amounts of energy are ejected in the form of solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
According to NASA, a large CME can contain a billion tons of matter that can be accelerated to several million kilometres per hour in a spectacular explosion.
When the mass of matter strikes the magnetosphere, Earth’s magnetic field is opened, and energetic solar winds hit the atmosphere.
The result is a significant drop in Earth’s magnetic field strength that lasts about 6 to 12 hours and is slow to return.
Three major solar storms have impacted Earth since the 1850s.
In September 1859, a powerful geomagnetic storm occurred that was dubbed the Carrington Event. It caused telegraph systems in Europe and North America to fail.
Auroras were witnessed worldwide. Those over the Rocky Mountains were so bright that miners woke to prepare breakfast, thinking it was morning.
In May 1921 there was a three-day storm where the geomagnetic current ignited fires worldwide and stopped the telegraph system in the US due to damaged fuses.
The March 1989 geomagnetic storm caused Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system to fail, resulting in a nine-hour outage.
While these events had significant impacts, they were before the rise of modern Internet infrastructure.
What if it were to happen now?
Threat of a solar superstorm
Abdu Jyothi, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, researched the threat that a geomagnetic storm would pose in the modern day.
She indicated that even if power were restored within hours, long-lasting internet outages would persist.
Local and regional internet infrastructure would be at low risk of damage due to shorter cable connections being grounded regularly and fibre optic cables being essentially immune to geomagnetic currents.
The significant risk would be to long submarine cables that connect continents and communicate large quantities of data.
These longer cables are at risk because repeaters are included in the construction of these cables.
The electronic components of the repeaters are susceptible to geomagnetic currents, and in the event of their failure, connectivity could be partially or entirely interrupted.
If geomagnetic currents were to impact these undersea cables, it is likely that widespread loss of connectivity would occur, even if local networks stayed intact.
“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 said.
“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 suggested that her study is preliminary to more, multi-disciplinary research that will need to be conducted to understand how to handle the threat that solar storms pose.
“A powerful solar superstorm has the potential to cause massive disruption of the Internet,” Abdu Jyothi’s paper concluded.
“Paying attention to this threat and planning defences against it, like our preliminary effort in this paper, is critical for the long-term resilience of the Internet.”