Solar Storms: Could They Kill the Internet?
Our sun is a raging ball of fire – this is not news. It is volatile, dangerous, and very, very hot. Solar storms are commonplace, and the sun goes through solar cycles that span roughly eleven years. At the peak of these cycles, solar storms become stronger and more dangerous. So dangerous in fact, that they could cripple our global communications systems.
Solar storms are caused by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares. These release a stream of charged particles called an electromagnetic field. Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, these solar storms could create geomagnetic storms back on earth.
The strongest geomagnetic storm we know of was called the Carrington Event. It took place in 1859, during solar cycle 10, and was so strong that auroras were seen across the world. It remains the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history and is thought to have been the result of a CME colliding with Earth’s magnetosphere.
If this were to happen today, with all of the technology that we have in place, our communications system and electrical power grid would be crippled. We would see widespread blackouts, electrical disruptions, and damage due to outages. In what is being termed an ‘internet apocalypse,’ a storm of this magnitude would also cause large scale internet disruptions for potentially months.
According to a 2021 study authored by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, there is a 1.6 – 12% chance of such an event happening within the next decade.
But there is hope.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, or PSP, was launched five years ago. Its mission was to investigate these charged particles and learn how we can prevent them from affecting the internet back on Earth. By gathering data and learning more about space weather, and how the sun drives geomagnetic storms, scientists are able to better predict these events.
Technology created using data gathered by the PSP will give Earth a 30-minute warning in the event of a severe solar storm. NASA says this could provide just enough time for power grid operators and telecommunications companies to prepare for these storms and prevent severe impacts.
With how reliant we are globally on our communications systems, it is imperative that we ensure their safety and longevity. While we cannot be sure that a super solar event like this will take place, being prepared for one is of vital importance. Who knows what could happen if we aren’t?
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC