A coronal mass ejection from the Sun could cause geomagnetic storms on Earth and seriously damage internet infrastructure. This extreme event could also harm power transmission lines and satellites, but the damage to communications, particularly to undersea cables, would be far more serious.
It has been known for some time that such an event can threaten satellites and electrical equipment. The new research — done by scientist Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine, and presented at the SIGCOMM 2021 conference — looks in more detail at impacts on internet infrastructure.
Subsea cable repeaters are the big problem
Local distribution networks would suffer in the event of such a solar storm, as they largely use optical fibers, which are unaffected by disturbances in the magnetic field. The biggest problem would be the undersea cables, which connect continents and carry most of the data. Therefore, even if local networks remained intact or with minor damage, entire countries could be disconnected from the internet.
And the problem isn’t even with the submarine cables themselves — they also use fiber optics, after all. The issue is with the repeaters, devices that are located every 50 to 150 kilometers of cables and serve to amplify the signal and ensure that it reaches its destination.
The electronic components of these devices are vulnerable to disturbances in magnetic fields. If they fail, the cables become useless.
Being underwater doesn’t help — on the contrary, it does, as seawater is highly conductive, and a disturbance in the magnetic field would generate electrical currents. Incidentally, these currents would also affect the equipment that power the repeaters, causing an overload and damaging these signal amplifiers.
An important point is that these structures are difficult to access. Even undersea cables are designed to be replaced every 25 years, given the work it takes to install them on the seabed. As a result, these damaged repeaters could take days or even weeks to replace. As such an event could also put satellites out of service, many regions would be left with no alternative.
Brazil would remain linked to Europe, but not to the US
A solar storm of great magnitude would make some regions suffer more than others. This is because high latitudes are more susceptible to the effects of a disturbance in the magnetic field, even if it is of a more moderate degree. Abdu Jyothi’s research also takes this into account.
The work found that Asia may be less affected in such an episode, as Singapore acts as a hub for networks there and is located close to the equator.
On the other hand, regions with a higher concentration of equipment are at higher latitudes, and there is a great chance that the US will be disconnected from Europe. Connections within the Old Continent should pass without further damage. Australia and islands such as New Zealand and Hawaii could lose most of their long-distance connections.
Abdu Jyothi also described what can happen to Brazil in an extreme situation:
“Interestingly, even with major flaws, Brazil would maintain its connectivity with Europe and with other parts of South America, such as Argentina. However, it would lose its connectivity to North America. It is also interesting to note that the US would lose its connectivity with Europe in this scenario, but Brazil would not. This is because the Ellalink cable, which connects Brazil to Portugal, is 6,200 km long, while the cable connecting Florida to Portugal is much longer, at 9,833 km.”
Even so, no one would be 100% safe, as routing systems would likely be overloaded. DNS servers, being highly distributed across the planet, are less vulnerable. It’s a similar case with Google’s data centers, which are less susceptible than Facebook’s more spread out geographically.
Other coronal mass ejections have already reached Earth
Coronal mass ejection is the name given to large eruptions of ionized gas from the Sun. This material becomes part of the solar wind and, upon reaching the Earth’s magnetic field, can cause geomagnetic storms, momentary disturbances in this part of our planet. This, in turn, would cause electrical currents induced by geomagnetism, causing damage to the electrical network.
One difficulty in predicting what would happen in such cases is that there is little data, as events of this type are rare. Even so, there are some records of them.
One of the most exemplary cases was the so-called Carrington Event, in 1859. At the time, compasses went crazy, telegraphs stopped working and even auroras were seen in regions close to the equator. In 1921, another storm caused blackouts and damage to telegraphs.
A recent event with minor damage occurred in 1989, when it caused blackouts in the US and Canada. In 2012, a solar storm could have hit Earth, but it missed our planet by just nine days.
The probability of such an event hitting the Earth is 1.6% to 12% per decade, according to research by Abdu Jyothi. Over the past 30 years, there has been a drop in solar activity, which has coincided with technological development on the planet. In the near future, however, the tendency is for the star to become more active, also increasing the chances of a new storm.
Given the rarity of these events, they are not a priority when thinking about mitigating risks. As Thomas Overbye, from Texas A&M University, explains to the magazine Wired, power grid operators are more aware of this in the last ten years. Even so, extreme weather events and cyber attacks are high on the list of issues to be tackled.
With information: Wired via Ars Technica