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Growing risk of once-in-a-century solar superstorm that could knock out internet, study says

Reference: CTV News

TORONTO -- Imagine if one day the internet was down not just in your neighbourhood, but across the globe, knocked out by a threat from space: an enormous solar superstorm.

It sounds like science fiction, but a new study says it could become our reality earlier than we think if we don’t prepare properly for the next time the sun spits a wave of magnetized plasma at us.

“Astrophysicists estimate the likelihood of a solar storm of sufficient strength to cause catastrophic disruption occurring within the next decade to be 1.6 — 12 per cent,” the study states.

“Paying attention to this threat and planning defenses against it, […] is critical for the long-term resilience of the internet.”

The paper, written by University of California assistant professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, is titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse.”

It paints a scary picture of what could happen if an enormous solar storm hits us: submarine cables between countries shut down, power grids offline, data centres from web giants at risk of going dark.

But how do we even start protecting against it?

Solar activity isn’t easy to predict. While we know that the sun has an 11-year cycle that lets us track when solar activity will be higher, whether these high points will have harmless solar flares or large-scale solar weather events isn’t easy to pinpoint.

The sun also has a longer cycle that takes approximately 80-100 years called the Gleissberg cycle, in which large-scale solar events during solar maxima (the high point of the 11-year-cycle) become four times more likely to occur.

The two most recent solar cycles, from 1996-2008 and 2008-2020, were part of a minimum activity period during the Gleissberg cycle.

“In other words, modern technological advancement coincided with a period of weak solar activity and the sun is expected to become more active in the near future,” the study stated.

This means that the modern internet infrastructure we’ve developed over the last few decades has never been tested by strong solar activity.

Also known as a geomagnetic storm, a solar superstorm is what happens when something called a coronal mass ejection (CME) escapes the sun and strikes the Earth.

Large portions of the sun’s outer layer, the corona, can be blown off into space due to changes in the sun’s magnetic fields. These clouds of magnetized particles and superheated gas can reach the Earth in anywhere from a day to four or five days.

If Earth is in the path of a CME, the solar plasma will slam into the Earth’s magnetic field and cause a geomagnetic storm. While this doesn’t directly harm any humans on the planet below, it can impact our magnetic field and cause “strong electric currents on the Earth’s surface that can disrupt and even destroy various human technologies.”

We know this because it’s happened before — just never in the age of the internet.

The first recorded CME to greatly impact Earth was in 1859. Known as the Carrington event, it caused large-scale telegraph outages in North America and Europe, with equipment fires and electric shocks to telegram operators reported across the globe.

The CME that caused it was travelling so fast it reached the Earth in only 17.6 hours, and scientists have theorized in the past that if such an event struck us today, it could knock out power for 20-40 million people in the U.S. alone for up to two years.

The strongest CME of the past century was in 1921. But smaller CMEs have impacted us since, including one that knocked out the power grid in Quebec in 1989, plunging the entire province into darkness.

Just when the next big CME could be isn’t certain. The study stated that this next solar cycle is on track to have between 210 and 260 sunspots at the height of the sun’s cycle, which is twice the amount that occurred at the peak in the last cycle. CMEs originate near sunspots, so this can be a predictor for the strength and likelihood of a CME.

The new study pointed out that in the last Gleissberg cycle, its minimum was in 1910, and a huge CME occurred just over a decade later. Since we’re coming out of a period of minimum solar activity, we should be on the alert.

“Given that a strong solar cycle that can produce a Carrington-scale event can occur in the next couple of decades, we need to prepare our infrastructure now for a potential catastrophic event,” the study stated.

The study looked at the physical infrastructure that could be at risk, from cable networks to data centers, to the location of more than 46,000,000 internet routers... Read More