- According to a research paper by a scientist at the University of California, Irvine, major solar storms will someday interfere with our internet infrastructure.
- To reduce the risk of a long-term outage, we should place undersea internet cables at lower latitudes where geomagnetic storms might have less impact.
- These space storms are considered “black swan” events due to their lack of predictability.
You may be obsessed with checking your local weather radar, but when was the last time you thought of space Weather report? Turns out there’s a good reason to tune in: our sun could cause solar storms that would cause massive internet outages in the long run.
In 2013, insurance company Lloyd’s of London predicted that “the most extreme space storms could affect 20 to 40 million people in the United States and cause up to $2.6 trillion in damage, with recovery potentially take up to two years”, according to the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Yet the tech industry has only just begun to think about how to prepare for these solar storms. With so much money at stake, why aren’t more decision makers paying more attention?
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“My dream is to have a [space storm] during the Super Bowl that knocks out the TV broadcast, because the next day Congress will approve a lot of money for this type of research,” said Tamas Gombosi, director of the Center for Space Environment Modeling at the University of Michigan. Popular mechanics.
In new research from the University of California at Irvine, scientists have zeroed in on some of the potential weak spots in our internet infrastructure to help us move forward.
Disrupt the network
Researchers who study space weather constantly observe solar phenomena and try to predict them. They focus on three main types of events: geomagnetic storms, solar energetic particles impacting satellites, and radio bursts associated with flares that can disrupt satellite communications.
Geomagnetic storms, on the other hand, “start out as solar flares,” said Robert Steenburgh, acting head of NOAA’s Space Weather Forecast Office. Popular mechanics. “The sun is going to spit big drops of plasma out into space. The blob carries its own magnetic field with it. And if it’s pointing towards Earth, if it happens, it can interact with the earth’s magnetic field and cause a geomagnetic storm. This is probably the most important of them.
Geomagnetic storms disrupt the grid by inducing electrical currents on power lines, Steenburgh says. They can also induce currents in cables under the ocean.
“Although the geomagnetic storm affects the Earth as a whole, the impacts on the grid are localized based on the underlying surface geology below these power lines,” Steenburgh explains. “So there are places where this infrastructure is more sensitive to these induced currents… It has to do with ground conductivity.”
Satellites can also be affected by “solar energetic protons and heavy nuclei that are ejected during these violent events on the sun,” Steenburgh says. “They can reach Earth in minutes to hours. Orbiting spacecraft can be affected by these particles if they bury themselves in satellite electronics.
Black Swan Events
The United States is particularly at risk of web disconnection during solar storms because it is located at a high latitude and has longer cable infrastructure than Europe, according to the new study. Singapore is a hub of web activity in a safer location near the equator. Asia is relatively resilient; However, Chinese cities are less safe than Indian cities. Australia, New Zealand and nearby islands will likely lose long-distance connections. The cable connecting Europe and Brazil is less prone to damage than those connecting the United States and Europe.
In the article, the researchers recommend placing submarine cables at lower latitudes. It also supports improved failure testing and modeling, automated responses, data protocols, and backup systems.
“We do a lot of failure testing, but most of the testing is for few failures,” says Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, assistant professor of computer science at the University of California, Irvine and author of the paper. Popular mechanics. “Solar superstorms can create a scenario that could cause massive blackouts. Multiple data centers, multiple links, multiple routers can be down at the same time. We don’t even understand how the infrastructure would react to such a failure scenario. [There are] currently lots of hand coded rules on how things should be migrated.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which Jyothi refers to as a “black swan” event for its unpredictable nature, inspired her to research this topic. “Our society does not take into account the worst-case scenarios. It was during this period of confinement in April 2020 that I started to think… I had read about these solar storms a long time ago.
Although some space weather modeling tools exist, it is still quite difficult to predict what the sun will do. Steenburgh says he’s excited about the progress scientists are making with numerical models, including a new machine learning project.
Kat Friedrich is a former mechanical engineer who started as an applied math, engineering, and physics major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a graduate degree in science and environmental journalism and has edited seven news publications, two of which she co-founded. She spends her free time learning dance and functional fitness, reading science fiction, and exploring musical events.