Solar storm-Internet impact: The Sun can have a devastating impact on infrastructure on Earth
Anything that has to do with the Sun has fascinated humanity for ages and this applies to a solar storm too. The Sun's power as a source of immense energy is revered and therefore, it catches everyone's interest. That applies to most things about the Sun, positive or negative. Among the negatives is something called a solar storm. So, what is a solar storm and how does it affect humans and the infrastructure on Earth, especially Internet? Read on to know it all in brief.
Solar storms have been in the news for quite some time and researchers have highlighted their potential to wreak havoc on Earth. Notably, a large enough solar storm can impact the electric and electronic infrastructure, which not only includes the satellite systems but also long-haul fibre-optic cables on the Earth that make the Internet possible. In short, a solar storm has the potential to bring down the electric grid as well as the Internet and that eventuality will be catastrophic in terms of loss of lives as well as cost.
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What is a solar storm? As NASA explains it, a solar storm is created by a variety of eruptions or ejections of energy from the surface of the Sun. These include flares, prominences, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections or CME. They all involve sudden releases of stored magnetic energy, which accelerates the hot gases near the surface or in the corona of the Sun. Sometimes these particles head straight to the Earth flowing along the Sun's magnetic field into interplanetary space. When the material collides with the Earth's magnetic field and gets trapped in radiation belts, it can dump particles into Earth's upper atmosphere that cause the magnificent lighting colours in the sky - the Aurora.
What is the danger from a solar storm? The same charged particles can produce their own magnetic fields which can modify the Earth's magnetic field and affect compass readings. The changing magnetic fields can also induce electricity in long pipelines, or produce electrical surges in our power grids leading to brownouts and blackouts. A solar storm can also disrupt the working of satellites, telecommunications and navigation systems. They can also cause power grid failures and regional blackouts.
Recently, a research paper published by Indian scientist Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research talked about the extent of damage that can be caused by a solar storm. In her paper, Jyothi said that a solar storm could damage certain segments of submarine cables that make possible the uninterrupted running of the Internet. The researcher revealed that some critical parts of these cables can be damaged by a solar storm. If that happens, then the US is highly susceptible to disconnection from Europe, while Europe is in a vulnerable location but is more resilient due to the presence of a larger number of shorter cables. Asia, on the other hand, had a relatively high resilience with Singapore acting as a hub with connections to several countries.
The greatest danger from a solar storm is its impact on a certain critical part of the long haul under-sea cables. These have accompanying conductors that connect repeaters in series along their length called the power feeding line. These conductors are the weak link that will be hit and cause, what she called, would be an internet apocalypse.
Is a solar storm dangerous to humans? Fortunately, they aren't dangerous to human beings, but only if we remain on Earth. Humans are safe on Earth because most of the solar radiation is absorbed by Earth's atmosphere and so it doesn't have an impact. However, in space, CMEs in large doses can prove to be fatal to unshielded astronauts.