Humans have been extremely lucky. The entire wireless and internet-based tech advancement that we have achieved over the last 50 year or so, came during a period when major solar storms were practically non-existent. As a result, we have placed 4,852 satellites (as of January 1, 2022) in space that are orbiting the Earth and helping us transmit huge amounts of data across the globe in mere seconds. We also have a network of undersea Internet cables stretching all across the oceans, connecting the world. But a study claims that this will not last forever and intense solar storm attacks will begin sooner than we think and these will likely destroy satellites in space and cause massive internet outages lasting half-an-year or more. Once that happens, our planet might be in for a period of horror.
The study is by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, an Indian scholar and assistant professor at University of California. Building up the case for how tech advancement came to this stage, the study mentions, “modern technological advancement coincided with a period of weak solar activity and the sun is expected to become more active in the near future”. It also claimed that the next big solar storm event is not far away and we might not be prepared for it.
In February 2022, a solar storm destroyed 40 Starlink's satellites. The satellites, made by Elon Musk-led SpaceX, fell victim to a mere G2-class solar disturbance. This is no way near to the gigantic G5-class solar storm that took place in 1859 and is known as the Carrington-event. “The current Internet infrastructure has not been stress-tested by strong solar events”, states the study.
But things will not stay the same way. “A recent study from November 2020 suggested that the ongoing solar cycle has the potential to be one of the strongest on record. Recent estimates for the number of sunspots at the peak of this cycle are between 210 and 260”, added the study. This is a very high number considering the previous solar cycle that ended in 2019 had a peak sunspot number of 116.
And the worst part is, our technology is not prepared to withstand something like that. We were only able to reach this level of advancement because the cosmic disturbances were laying dormant. But when the Sun roars again, these instruments and satellites might get destroyed as they have not been stress tested for geomagnetic events.
What could be the consequences? Satellites becoming dysfunctional would directly impact GPS, mobile phone network, radio communications and more. Power grids and electronic systems on Earth that run on computers may also suffer irreparable damage. And it can even destroy the internet around the world, pushing us back to the dark ages in virtually the blink of an eye.
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