Internet apocalypse: solar storms pose a major threat to long undersea cables

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A particularly strong solar flare could have dramatic consequences for the world’s internet infrastructure and trigger an “internet apocalypse”. A researcher at the University of California, Irvine, warns of this in a scientific article that she has now presented at the Sigcomm 2021 conference.

The risk is particularly high for submarine cables in high latitudes, especially those between Europe and the USA. In the event of a violent solar storm, this connection could be down for months, but regional connections and cables in lower latitudes should retain their connectivity. Overall, she calls for the dangers of further expansion of the Internet networks to be planned more closely.

As Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi erklärt, the strongest solar storms observed occurred in 1859 and 1921, long before modern technology appeared. A weaker solar flare in 1989 caused, among other things, a massive power outage in the Canadian province of Québec. But that too happened before the modern internet infrastructure was built. It is therefore not clear what effects the geomagnetically induced current (GIC) generated during such an event, which arises from the interaction of the charged solar particles with the earth’s magnetic field, would have today. The researcher wants to change that and help us prepare better for such an event.

In the article available online, the researcher explains that optical fibers in today’s submarine cables are immune to the effects of a solar storm. But about every 100 kilometers there are repeaters that amplify the signals and they are vulnerable. But because solar storms do not have the same impact everywhere, the risk for infrastructure is higher at higher latitudes and it is here that the connections between Europe and the USA are particularly concentrated. Extreme solar events could cut this connection, which is particularly problematic for the USA, she writes. Europe is better connected to one another and the undersea cables here are shorter.

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She also states that, according to her analysis, the risk for Asia is lower, mainly because Singapore is geographically favorable as a central hub. Submarine cables around Africa are safe and the connection between Europe and Brazil should also hold. Australia, New Zealand and other islands in the area would also be cut off. She even found that Google’s data centers are better distributed than Facebook’s, so the search engine company should be more resilient. In view of her results, she warns against relying too heavily on submarine cables in the Arctic in the future. She has not investigated the dangers for Internet infrastructure in orbit, but it stands to reason that the risk for Starlink & Co. is greater.

Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi recalls that the rapid technological growth of the past few decades coincided with a phase when our sun was fairly calm. This was not only beneficial for the expansion of the Internet infrastructure, but at the same time we only had a limited understanding of what bad solar storms could mean for the Internet. After the sun reached its most recent activity minimum in December 2019, it is currently going through its 25th cycle and should reach its next maximum sometime between November 2024 and March 2026. But that should also remain comparatively weak, despite the fact that severe solar flares are always possible.


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