For decades, scientists have known that a powerful solar storm, known as a coronal mass ejection, might destroy electrical systems and result in lengthy blackouts. From global supply chains and transportation to Internet and GPS access, the consequences would be seen everywhere.
The impact of such a solar output on Internet infrastructure, however, has been overlooked until now. According to new research, the failures might be disastrous, especially for the undersea cables that support the worldwide Internet.
Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine presented “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse” at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference on Thursday, an examination of the damage a fast-moving cloud of magnetized solar particles could cause the global Internet.
Abdu Jyothi’s research highlights another aspect of a solar storm that causes blackouts: the situation in which, even if electricity is restored in hours or days, mass Internet failures linger.
Severe solar storms are so uncommon that there are only three occurrences in recent history to depend on. Large geomagnetic storms disrupted electrical infrastructure and communication networks such as telegraph cables in 1859 and 1921, respectively. Compass needles swung widely and unpredictably during the enormous 1859 “Carrington Event,” and the aurora borealis was seen at the equator in Colombia.
However, those geomagnetic disturbances occurred before the establishment of contemporary electric grids. In 1989, a moderate-severity solar storm knocked out Hydro-grid, Québec’s resulting in a nine-hour blackout in northeast Canada, however this was before the rise of contemporary Internet infrastructure.
Coronal mass ejections, however rare, pose a serious danger to Internet resilience, according to Abdu Jyothi. After three decades of low solar storm activity, she and other researchers warn that the chances of another occurrence are increasing.
For a variety of reasons, undersea Internet cables are vulnerable to solar storm damage. Cables are installed with repeaters at intervals of 50 to 150 kilometers, depending on the cable, to keep data intact while it travels across seas. Like a relay throw in baseball, these devices enhance the optical signal to ensure that nothing is lost in route.
While fiber optic cable is not directly affected by geomagnetically induced currents, the electrical internals of repeaters are, and a sufficient number of repeater failures will render an entire undersea cable useless. Furthermore, because submarine cables are only grounded at hundreds or thousands of kilometers intervals, vulnerable components like repeaters are more susceptible to geomagnetically produced currents. Because the composition of the sea floor varies, some grounding spots may be more effective than others.
A big solar storm may potentially take down any equipment in orbit over the Earth that supports services such as satellite Internet and global positioning.
At higher latitudes, closer to the Earth’s magnetic poles, coronal mass ejections have a greater impact. As a result, Abdu Jyothi is more concerned about wires in some areas than others. Because Singapore serves as a center for numerous undersea cables in the region and is located near the equator, she discovered that Asia is less vulnerable.
Many cables in that area are likewise shorter since they branch out in multiple directions from that hub rather than being strung together in a single span. Cables crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at high latitudes are more vulnerable to even minor storms.
The global Internet is designed to withstand disasters. Traffic reroutes through other paths if one is unavailable, a feature that might keep communication up in the event of a solar storm, albeit at decreased speeds. However, significant damage to these key arteries would cause the network to become unstable.
According to Abdu Jyothi, depending on where the cable outages occur, core data routing technologies such as the Border Gateway Protocol and Domain Name System may begin to break, resulting in knock-on outages. It’s the online equivalent of traffic jams that would occur if road signs and traffic lights went out at busy crossroads throughout a big city.
Grid operators in North America and a few other regions have minimal requirements and processes for solar storm preparedness. And, according to Thomas Overbye, director of Texas A&M University’s Smart Grid Center, grid operators have made some headway in limiting the risk over the last ten years.
However, he notes that, because geomagnetic disruptions are so infrequent and poorly understood, other risks such as extreme weather or cyberattacks are rapidly taking precedence.
There are even more unknowns on the Internet infrastructure side. Abdu Jyothi adds that her research is only the start of much more comprehensive interdisciplinary research and modeling that will be required to fully comprehend the threat’s scope.
Solar storms are relatively infrequent, but the stakes are quite high. A worldwide connection outage of that magnitude would have a significant impact on practically every company and person on the planet.