A recent report by academics at the University of California, Irvine, has highlighted space as the primary threat to global Internet security.
Significant solar activity – the kind of which have not been seen in over a century – has the potential to unleash a terrible “Internet apocalypse.” Solar storms have the potential to disrupt key systems and result in daily losses of up to $7 billion in the United States alone.
According to Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, a computer science professor and the study’s author, even a few minutes of worldwide Internet downtime would be disastrous.
And, in the worst-case situation, the outage may continue days, if not months.
In her paper, Professor Jyothi wrote: “The Internet has played a key role in helping us deal with the coronavirus pandemic, a recent black swan event.
“However, Internet researchers and operators are mostly blind to another black swan event that poses a direct threat to Internet infrastructure.
“In this paper, we investigate the impact of solar superstorms that can potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months.”
Significant solar storms have already battered the earth, but these occurred before the Internet, satellite technology, and high-speed communications.
The Carrington Event, the largest solar storm on record, occurred in 1859.
The storm, which was triggered by a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a huge outpouring of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun – damaged telegraph lines across North America and Europe, causing multiple fires.
CMEs of unusual strength can be hurled our way by so-called solar “tsunamis” on the Sun’s surface.
NASA describes these as waves of heated plasma that rise above Earth and ripple out in a circular pattern millions of miles in diameter.
If one of these solar tsunamis triggered a Carrington-level catastrophe now, it would result in widespread blackouts, the destruction of satellites, and a state of pandemonium on the world.
Professor Jyothi stated in her study that around 20 to 40 million individuals in the United States could be left without power for up to two years.
In 2012, a similar-sized event came frighteningly close to crashing with the planet but narrowly missed.
At the time, it was projected that the storm’s overall economic damage would have exceeded $2 trillion.
Professor Jyothi has recently expressed concern that the world’s Internet infrastructure may be unprepared for such an occurrence.
Internet cables that run along the seabed, for example, may sustain irreversible damage and are “at a greater risk of failure” than land-based cables.
The expert added: “The probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events that directly impact the Earth is estimated to be 1.6 percent to 12 percent per decade.
“More importantly, the Sunn was in a period of low activity in the past three decades from which it is slowly emerging.
“Since this low phase of solar activity coincided with the rapid growth of technology on the Earth, we have a limited understanding of whether the current infrastructure is resilient against powerful CMEs.”
The majority of life on Earth is protected from solar activity by the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field.
However, the same protection does not apply to satellites and spacecraft.
Solar storms can also have an effect on ground-based technologies, as was the case in 1989 when the entire province of Quebec in Canada lost power.
NASA reports that a strong solar outburst ejected a billion-ton cloud of gas right toward our planet.
The solar storm that resulted brought the Quebec electricity grid to a grinding halt in a couple of minutes.
And prior to it, in May 1921, the twentieth century’s most violent solar storm happened.
The so-called New York Railroad superstorm destroyed the city’s telegraph and railroad systems, as well as causing widespread devastation.
Professor Jyothi said: “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.”
Image Credit: GEtty