Could a solar storm leave the entire Earth without the internet?

(ORDO NEWS) — In Becky Chambers’ 2019 novella “Teach With Luck”, a powerful solar storm destroys Earth’s Internet, leaving a group of astronauts in space unable to call home.

It’s a terrifying prospect, but could a solar storm take out the internet in real life? And if so, how likely is it to happen?

Matthew Owens, a solar physicist at the University of Reading in the UK, notes that – yes, it can happen, but it would require a giant solar storm. In fact, this phenomenon has already taken place on a small scale.

Solar Storm

Solar storms occur when the Sun emits an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation. This disturbance sets off waves of energy that propagate outward, affecting other bodies in the solar system, including the Earth.

When wayward electromagnetic waves interact with the Earth’s own magnetic field, they have several effects.

First, they cause electrical currents to flow in Earth’s upper atmosphere, heating the air “just like your electric blanket works,” Owens noted.

These geomagnetic storms can create beautiful auroras over the polar regions, but they can also disrupt radio and GPS signals.

What’s more, as the atmosphere heats up, it puffs up like a marshmallow, adding extra drag to satellites in low Earth orbit and knocking smaller pieces of space debris off course.

Another influence of space weather is more terrestrial. As powerful electrical currents flow through our planet’s upper atmosphere, they induce powerful currents through the earth’s crust.

This can interfere with electrical conductors that sit on top of the bark, such as power grids, a network of transmission lines that carry electricity from power plants to homes and buildings.

The result is local power outages that are difficult to correct; according to NASA, one such event occurred in Quebec on March 13, 1989, resulting in a 12-hour blackout.

Most recently, a solar flare disabled 40 Starlink satellites when SpaceX was unable to check the space weather forecast.

What does it take to cut down the entire network on Earth?

Luckily, shutting down a few Starlink satellites isn’t enough to ruin global internet access.

To completely shut down the Internet, a solar storm would have to interfere with the extra-long fiber optic cables that run under the oceans and connect the continents.

Each stretch of 50 to 145 kilometers, these cables are fitted with repeaters to help boost their signal as it travels. While the cables themselves are not vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, repeaters are.

And if one repeater goes down, it could be enough to take out the entire cable, and if enough cables go down, it could trigger an “internet apocalypse.”

A global internet shutdown could have potentially catastrophic consequences – it would destroy everything from the supply chain to the medical system, the stock market, and the basic ability of individuals to work and communicate.

There are several ways to protect the Internet from the next mega solar storm.

First, to protect electrical networks, satellites and submarine cables from overload due to the influx of current, including fail-safe devices for strategic shutdown of networks during a solar storm.

The second, less expensive way is to develop a better method for predicting solar storms in the long term.


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