Scientists say a giant solar storm could “wipe out the Internet” for weeks or months
We may marvel at the northern lights, but the same energy from a solar storm could one day create what one researcher described as an “internet apocalypse.”
Professor Peter Becker from George Mason University said: “The Internet reached maturity at a time when the sun was relatively quiet, and now it is entering a more active time.” “It is the first time in human history that there is an intersection between increasing solar activity, our dependence on the Internet, and our global economic dependence on the Internet.”
Baker is the principal investigator on a project with the school and the Naval Research Laboratory to create an early warning system.
The activity of the northern lights, including the aurora borealis in the south, will increase due to increased solar activity
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“There were a lot of (solar) flares,” Baker said. “Flares happen when the sun shines, and we see the radiation, and that’s kind of a muzzle flash. And then the cannon shot is a coronal mass ejection (CME). So, we can see the flash, but then the CME can go off in a random direction in space “But we can tell when they’re actually heading toward Earth, and that gives us about 18 hours of warning, maybe 24 hours of warning, before those particles actually get to Earth and start messing with Earth’s magnetic field.”
Large blobs of plasma, or extremely hot material, fly through space in a coronal ejection. The rate hit the Earth, distorting our planet’s magnetic field. This third prong in the electrical plug, which normally gives excess electrical charges a safe place to go, becomes “like a big circuit.”
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“And then you get this kind of insidious thing where you can get the current from the ground,” Baker said. “So everyone thinks, ‘Oh, my computer is grounded, I’m fine,’ but in an event like this, if you push induced currents to the surface of the Earth, they can work almost backwards, and you can actually end up frying things that you “You think it’s relatively safe.”
The power grid, satellites, underground fiber optic cables with copper sheaths, navigation systems, GPS, radio transmitters and communications equipment are all at risk.
It’s happened before
It’s happened before. Baker points to the Carrington event in 1859. That was the last time a CME reached Earth.
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“It literally destroyed the telegraph system, and sparks were literally flying off the telegraph lines,” Baker said. “Some of the operators were electrocuted because the wires were carrying high voltages, which they were never supposed to do, but the magnetic field changes became so strong that they almost became a generator system and drove these currents down the telegraph wires.”
He said that heavy-duty telegraph wires were strong compared to today’s fragile electronics.
“If you put that on top of the Internet with its very fine electronics, you’re talking about something that could really burn out the system for a period of several weeks to months in terms of the time it would take to repair the entire infrastructure — all the electronic switches, all these electronic cabinets in all These office buildings.” “It could all be fried. So we’re talking pretty big. It’s not just about communications. “It’s obviously an economic disruption as well.”
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Baker estimates $10 billion to $20 billion in economic disruption per day to the U.S. economy alone.
The solar cycle is peaking, making solar storms more abundant
Tree rings and ice cores are evidence of much larger major storms in the past. About 14,000 years ago, a solar flare collided with Earth, perhaps hundreds of times more powerful than the Carrington flare.
NOAA expects the current solar cycle to ramp up and reach its peak in 2024.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a stronger peak of solar activity in 2024 than originally expected
Predicting solar storms is like predicting earthquakes – we have no control over the situation, Baker said. The odds are about 10% that within the next decade, “something really big will happen that could wipe out the Internet,” he said.
How can we protect electronics?
So he and his team watch the sun and form flares. He said the flares reach the ground in 8 minutes. This sets the clock for possible interruption of the magnetic field within 18 to 24 hours.
“If we get a warning, every minute counts because you can put the satellites in safe mode. You can disconnect the transformers from the network, so they don’t burn out,” Baker said. “So there are things you can do to mitigate the problem. And then, in the long term, you’re talking about hardening the Internet. And that’s of course an economic challenge because it’s kind of like an insurance policy. You may never need that, and it’s going to cost trillions to really harden the system.” “
He said most major companies don’t have the economic incentive to tighten their regulation at this point.