Upcoming Solar Blast to Knock Internet Offline for 4 Weeks?

The sun has been quite active in recent days, with solar flares and coronal mass ejections leaping into space, occasionally blasting into the direction of Earth; now scientists are warning that an upcoming solar blast will knock the internet offline for many weeks or months, adding to the problems that a significant space weather event can bring with it. Scientists cannot pinpoint when this will occur, but based on past solar cycles, it’s quite possible such an impact will occur at some point within the next 10 years.

A new paper, written by University of California assistant professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, entitled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse”, describes the threats the sun pose to the global web of computers and the communications between them. “In this paper, we investigate the impact of solar superstorms that can potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months,” the author wrote.

Dark regions on the Sun known as coronal holes are one of the main drivers of space weather now. According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, coronal holes appear as dark regions on the Sun because they are cooler than the surrounding plasma and are open magnetic field lines. The Sun’s outermost part of its atmosphere, which is known as the corona, is where these dark regions appear. The solar corona was also one of the main features of the Sun scientists were most excited to study during the past solar eclipse.

Solar wind is always flowing from the Sun and towards Earth but coronal holes are known for releasing enhanced solar wind. Coronal holes can develop anywhere on the sun and are more common during solar minimum. One solar rotation of the Sun occurs every 27 days and coronal holes are sometimes able to last several of these. It is common to see persistent coronal holes at the north and south pole of the Sun but sometimes they can expand towards the equator of the Sun resulting in a larger region. Normally, coronal holes located near the Sun’s equator, result in faster solar wind arriving at Earth. It is common to see coronal holes produce  geomagnetic storms that eventually impact Earth.

NOAA forecasters analyze these features and have to take them into account during each forecast. If Earth is experiencing the effects of a coronal hole and a coronal mass ejection is forecasted to impact Earth, the combined effects could result in a more significant impact and more intense geomagnetic storming. Analyzing data from the DSCOVER and ACE satellite is one way forecasters can tell when the enhanced solar wind from a coronal hole is about to arrive at Earth.

While these solar events can help illuminate the sky with stunning aurora, they can also do considerable harm to electronics, electrical grids, and satellite and radio communications.

On September 1-2 in 1859, a powerful geomagnetic storm struck Earth during Solar Cycle 10. A CME hit the Earth and induced the largest geomagnetic storm on record.  The storm was so intense it created extremely bright, vivid aurora throughout the planet: people in California thought the sun rose early, people in the northeastern U.S. could read a newspaper at night from the aurora’s bright light, and people as far south as Hawaii and south-central Mexico could see the aurora in the sky. This day became known as the “Carrington Event.”

The event severely damaged the limited electrical and communication lines that existed at that time; telegraph systems around the world failed, with some telegraph operators reporting they received electric shocks.

It is likely such an event will occur again, but even a less severe solar event could knock-out the internet.

The sun cycles in and out of active periods. One longer solar cycle is known as the Gleissberg cycle; this takes place every 80-100 years. During the Gleissberg cycle,  large-scale solar events during solar maxima  become four times more likely to occur.

The two most recent solar cycles, from 1996-2008 and 2008-2020, were part of a minimum activity period during the Gleissberg cycle. “In other words, modern technological advancement coincided with a period of weak solar activity and the sun is expected to become more active in the near future,” the paper stated. Because the internet was developed during this minimal activity period, it has never been tested by a period of strong solar activity. And unfortunately for the internet and all those that depend on it, we may be about to begin a period of very strong solar activity.

“A recent study from November 2020  suggested that this cycle has the potential to be one of the strongest on record,” the study author stated. “Recent estimates for the number of sunspots at the peak of this cycle are between 210 and 260 (a very high value). In contrast, the previous cycle that ended in 2019 had a peak sunspot number of 116. Since CMEs often originate in magnetically active regions near sunspots, a larger number of sunspots will increase the probability of a powerful CME. If this estimate  proves accurate, it will also signi!cantly increase the probability of a large-scale event in this decade.”

CMEs produce variations in the earth’s magnetic field, which in turn induce geoelectric fields on the earth’s conducting surface, such as the land or ocean floor. The paper’s author describes how a CME impacts cables: “These spatiotemporally varying electric fields are responsible for the generation of Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) as high as 100-130 Amps that can flow through any extended ground-based conductive systems such as power grids, networking cables, etc. This electromagnetically induced current enters/exits long-distance conductors from grounded neutral, causing destruction of electrical equipment such as transformers/repeaters and, in turn, large-scale power outages/Internet outages spanning many states or even countries.”

Large sunspots on the Sun are blasting Earth-directed solar flares into space. Image: NOAA SWPC
Large sunspots on the Sun are blasting Earth-directed solar flares into space this week. Future such blasts could bring about harm to all things electronic on Earth.  Image: NOAA SWPC

Based on this, power grids, oil and gas pipelines, and networking cables –including those the internet depends on– are the most vulnerable from a strong solar blast. In addition to damaging things on Earth, a strong solar blast could also damage things in space, such as communications satellite. If the blast is strong enough and a geomagnetically induced current is allowed to harm network infrastructure, the internet could be effectively killed until repairs are made. On a global scale, this could take weeks or months; some areas may not ever be able to be restored.

While the exact timing of such a solar blast isn’t known, scientists are fairly confident an internet-killing blast is likely at some point in the future. Worse, it appears the United States is more vulnerable than other countries around the world. “The U.S. is one of the most vulnerable locations with a high risk of disconnection from Europe during extreme solar events,” the study said. “Intracontinental connections in Europe are at a lower risk due to the presence of a large number of shorter land and submarine cables interconnecting the continent.”

To prepare for this event, the paper’s author encourages more redundant cables to be deployed, a smarter shut-down process to be developed, and more data centers deployed and spread out around the world in the event of regional failures. Overall, greater awareness of this threat needs to be publicized so that more stakeholders are aware of the risks and can strategize ways to minimize them.

The entire paper can be read here: https://www.ics.uci.edu/~sabdujyo/papers/sigcomm21-cme.pdf

One organization tasked to tracking such threats is the agency best known for its weather forecasts.  While typically known for their forecasts of rain, snow, and wind, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS) is also responsible for “space weather.” While there are private companies and other agencies that monitor and forecast space weather, the official source for  alerts and warnings of the space environment is the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The SWPC is located in Boulder, Colorado and is a service center of the NWS, which is part of NOAA. The Space Weather Prediction Center is also one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) as they monitor current space weather activity 24/7, 365 days a year.

The SWPC issues three day space weather forecasts highlighting risks posed by different unfolding space weather conditions. However, according to the paper’s author, people may only get a 13-hour advance notice of a significant internet-killing blast, which may not be enough time to properly shut-down and protect vital infrastructure around the globe.