Solar storms and Internet apocalypse: Why researcher feels "bad"

Recent discussions about the possibility of an "internet apocalypse" caused by solar storms have captured the attention of everyone, especially those frequenting the various social media platforms.

| Updated on: Jul 09 2023, 12:50 IST
Do all solar activities like solar storms, CME, impact Earth? This is what NASA says
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1/5 Sun is a source of energy and a lot of activities keep on happening on the fireball. But can Earth be impacted by solar activities? Before we tell you that, it is important to know what solar activity is? According to NASA, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, high-speed solar wind, and solar energetic particles are all forms of solar activity. All solar activity is driven by the solar magnetic field. (NASA)
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2/5 Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth. Because flares are made of photons, they travel out directly from the flare site, so if we can see the flare, we can be impacted by it. (Pixabay)
Solar Storm
3/5 Coronal mass ejections, also called CMEs, are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing right through the solar wind. Only when the cloud is aimed at Earth will the CME hit Earth and therefore cause impacts. (NASA)
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4/5 High-speed solar wind streams come from areas on the sun known as coronal holes. These holes can form anywhere on the sun and usually, only when they are closer to the solar equator, do the winds they produce impact Earth. (NASA)
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5/5 Solar energetic particles are high-energy charged particles, primarily thought to be released by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through the solar wind, high velocity solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they must follow the magnetic field lines that pervade the space between the Sun and the Earth. Therefore, only the charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect the Earth will result in impacts. (NASA)
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Researcher says feels bad about using the term "Internet Apocalypse" as concerns grow about solar storms. (Pixabay)

Recent discussions about the possibility of an "internet apocalypse" caused by solar storms have captured the attention of social media users. While the concept may sound like science fiction, experts suggest that a widespread internet outage triggered by a powerful solar storm is a rare, but plausible event. As the sun enters a particularly active phase known as the "solar maximum" in 2025, concerns about the world's preparedness have started to rise.

In effect, when the Sun is extremely volatile, it spews out energy in space. This can be in the form of what is called solar flares, coronal mass ejection, solar wind etc. If it happens to collide with the Earth's magnetic field, it immediately sparks a geomagnetic storm. While one effect of that are the beautiful auroras, the other is the impact on electrical grids, satellites, internet infrastructure, even oil rigs may have to be shut, and more. If a solar storm is powerful enough, like the Carrington event in 1859, it can destroy satellites, power grids and more. The Internet outage can last months as the damage will take that long to repair, according to the Washington Post reports.

Researcher sheds light on the need for internet resilience

Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, a computer science professor at the University of California, Irvine, has played a significant role in popularising the term "internet apocalypse" through her paper titled "Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse." Jyothi's interest in internet resilience was piqued during the COVID-19 pandemic when she realised society's lack of preparedness for such a crisis. She observed a dearth of research on the topic of widespread internet failure, particularly in extreme cases.

Jyothi emphasises that a severe solar storm could significantly impact large-scale infrastructure, including submarine communication cables (which carry most of our Internet traffic), potentially disrupting long-distance connectivity. Furthermore, the concentration of internet infrastructure in northern latitudes makes them particularly vulnerable to solar storms. This aspect has generally been overlooked till now.

The consequences of such outages could be dire, potentially lasting for months. Repairing the damage caused by these events would depend on the scale and the time required for restoration.

A Researcher's Regret

However, Jyothi expresses regret for coining the term "internet apocalypse" in her paper. She said, she feels "bad" for having used the phrase. However, the reason is important. She says that preparing for such an event falls primarily on governments and companies and ordinary people have very few options. She also notes that her paper received an unexpectedly high level of attention.

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First Published Date: 09 Jul, 12:50 IST