In Becky Chambers’ 2019 novella “To Be Taught, If Fortunate,” a massive solar storm wipes out Earth’s Internet, leaving a group of astronauts stranded in space with no way to call home. It’s a scary prospect, but could a solar storm hit the internet in real life? And if so, how likely is that to happen?
Yes, it could happen, but it would take a massive solar storm, Matthew Owens, a solar physicist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. “You would need a really massive event to do that, which is not impossible,” Owens said. “But I would think it’s more likely to hit the power grids.” In fact, this phenomenon has already occurred on a small scale.
Solar storms, also known as space weather, occur when the sun releases a powerful blast of electromagnetic radiation. This disturbance launches waves of energy that travel outward, affecting other bodies in the solar system such as Earth. When the strange electromagnetic waves interact with the Earth’s own magnetic field, they have a few effects.
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The first is that they cause electrical currents to flow through Earth’s upper atmosphere, heating the air “just like your electric blanket works,” Owens said. These geomagnetic storms can create beautiful saddle appear over polar regions, but can also disrupt radio signals and GPS. Additionally, as the atmosphere heats up, it puffs up like a marshmallow, adding extra drag to satellites in low Earth orbit and throwing smaller pieces of space junk out of their path.
The other impact of space weather is more terrestrial. As strong electric currents flow through our planet’s upper atmosphere, they cause strong currents to flow through the crust as well. This can affect electrical conduits at the top of the crust, such as power grids – the network of transmission lines that carry electricity from generating stations to homes and buildings. The result is localized power outages that can be difficult to fix. one such event hit Quebec on March 13, 1989, resulting in a 12-hour power outage, according to NASA (opens in new tab). More recently, a solar flare destroyed 40 Starlink satellites when SpaceX failed to test space weather forecasting, Live Science previously reported.
Fortunately, the removal of a few Starlink satellites is not enough to disrupt global Internet access. In order to take down the Internet completely, a solar storm would have to interfere with the very long fiber optic cables that run under the oceans and connect the continents. Every 30 to 90 miles (50 to 145 kilometers), these cables are equipped with repeaters that help amplify their signal as it travels. While the cables themselves are not vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, repeaters are. And if one repeater goes out, it could be enough to take out the entire cable, and if enough cables are disconnected, it could cause a “online disclosure,” Live Science previously reported.
A global internet blackout would be potentially catastrophic – disrupting everything from the supply chain to the medical system to the stock market and people’s basic ability to work and communicate.
There are a few ways to protect the Internet from the next big solar storm. The first is to shore up power grids, satellites and undersea cables against inrush overload, including failures to strategically shut down the grids during a solar storm flare.
The second, less expensive way is to work out a better method of predicting solar storms in the long run.
Can we predict solar storms?
Solar storms are also very difficult to predict. In part, they can be “very hard to detect,” Owens said. “Because while space weather has been going on for thousands of years, the technology affected by it has only been around for a few decades.”
Current technology can predict solar storms up to two days before they hit Earth based on the activity of sun spots, black patches on the surface of the sun indicating regions of high plasma activity. But scientists can’t track solar storms the way they do hurricanes. Instead, they turn to other cues, such as where the sun is in its current solar cycle. NASA and the European Space Agency are currently investigating ways to make such predictions using a combination of historical data and more recent observations.
The sun goes through about 11-year cycles of higher or lower activity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (opens in new tab), and its next peak in activity, known as solar maximum, should be around 2025. However, recent solar maximums have been relatively mild, leading scientists to suspect that our sun may be in a prolonged period of lower activity . “The sun has been pretty quiet since the 90s,” Owens said. The last global geomagnetic storm (at least on record) is the so-called “Carrington event” of 1859, during which auroras were seen as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, Hawaii. If the internet existed during this event, there is a chance it would have been severely disrupted.
Hopefully, scientists will be able to find a way to predict or minimize the impact of the next Carrington Event before we find ourselves in a future without the Internet… although, given the terrifying depths of social media, there may be worse fortunes.