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EXPLAINED: How A Storm Unleashed By The Sun Can Knock Out Internet On Earth

Solar storms, also known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are among the most powerful explosions happening in our solar system. (Representational Image, Credit: Shutterstock)

Solar storms, also known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are among the most powerful explosions happening in our solar system. (Representational Image, Credit: Shutterstock)

An Indian-origin researcher has warned about massive Internet outages -- of potentially catastrophic impact -- that can be triggered by a solar superstorm

A paper by an Indian-origin researcher has warned of an “Internet apocalypse" caused by none other than our very own sun. The phenomenon to be worried about is known as a solar storm or superstorm that can send out highly magnetised particles hurtling through space. If the Earth is in the direct line of such particles then at risk are everything from power grids to communication gear. And, such an event may be in the offing given how the sun is known to behave.

What Is A Solar Storm?

In July this year, parts of the Earth experienced a minor radio blackout thanks to the eruption of flares on the surface of the sun, which sent out magnetised waves that humans are protected from because of the Earth’s atmosphere but which nonetheless can throw communication gear out of joint. Now, in a paper entitled, ‘Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse‘, University of California, Irvine, researcher Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi has said that a solar storm, known scientifically as a coronal mass ejection (CME), posed the risk of causing catastrophic damage to internet communications on Earth.

Solar flares and CMEs both are phenomena related to eruptions on the surface of the sun. According to US space agency Nasa, though they are “otherwise quite different", solar flares and CMEs “both involve gigantic explosions of energy".

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“The two phenomena do sometimes occur at the same time — indeed the strongest flares are almost always correlated with CMEs — but they emit different things, they look and travel differently, and they have different effects near planets," it adds.

CMEs are defined as “huge bubbles of radiation and particles from the Sun" that are launched into space “at very high speed when the Sun’s magnetic field lines suddenly reorganise". You can see CMEs at work in the brilliant displays of light called auroras at the poles. However, if they are strong, CMEs can end up affecting electricity grids, leading to power outages.

What Is The Tangling Of Sun’s Magnetic Field?

To understand CMEs and solar flares we have to first learn about the sunspots that dot the surface of the sun. According to Nasa, sunspots are the darker patches on the surface of the gas bubble that is the sun. If they appear dark it is because they are also cooler than the surrounding areas and are linked to magnetic fields on the Sun. Nasa says that “these magnetic fields are so strong that they keep some of the heat within the Sun from reaching the surface", which would explain why these spots are cooler.

The temperature of a sunspot can be in the region of about 3,500 degrees Celsius, not cool you will say. But compare that with the 5,600 degrees Celsius that is the normal temperature for the surface of the Sun.

Magnetic fields or lines can be unstable and end up tangling and crossing each other. When that happens, it can unleash a sudden blast of energy, which scientists on Earth have named as a solar flare. These solar flares can send out massive amounts of radiation into space and, if very intense, these can interfere with radio communications on Earth.

Jyothi says in her paper that the “largest solar events on record occurred in 1859 and 1921". These were responsible for “extensive power outages and caused significant damage to the communication network of the day, the telegraph network".

On the other hand, the mother of all solar flares recorded by scientists on Earth was one that appeared in 2003. It had come during the peak of a solar cycle and experts say that Earth should gear up for more intense solar flares in the next few years after the sun began a new cycle in 2019.

What Is A Solar Cycle?

The solar cycle is linked to the Sun’s composition as a ball of hot gas. The gases that make up the Sun are in a constant state of flux and linked to their movement are the magnetic fields whose tangling and overlapping gives rise to solar flares. This magnetic field, interestingly, is what lies at the heart of solar cycles.

About every 11 years, Nasa says, “the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips", meaning its north and south poles are interchanged. This solar cycle, “affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots. As the magnetic fields change, so does the amount of activity on the Sun’s surface".

As a new cycle begins, the Sun is said to be at a solar minimum. This is a period when the Sun has the fewest sunspots. Then comes the period of solar maximum, when the solar cycle is at its middle and the Sun has the highest number of spots. It is also the time when the biggest solar flares can be expected, experts say. Now, given it started in 2019, it is around the middle of this decade that the biggest solar flares of the present cycle may occur.

However, such trends are not certain and Nasa says that while “some cycles have maximums with lots of sunspots and activity, other cycles can have very few sunspots and little activity". Which is why scientists spend considerable effort to study solar activity and predict the occurrence of solar flares, given the impact they can have.

What Damage Can A Solar Storm Cause?

Jyothi says in her paper that CMEs can “potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months". The probability of such an event of catastrophic magnitude hitting Earth, according to the paper, “is estimated to be 1.6 per cent to 12 per cent per decade".

CMEs can affect high frequency radio waves, Nasa says, making “radios transmit static, and GPS coordinates stray by a few yards". “The magnetic oscillations can also create electrical currents in utility grids on Earth that can overload electrical systems when power companies are not prepared," it adds. But Jyothi notes that while precautionary measures have been taken “particularly in the context of power grids… the networking community has largely overlooked this risk during the design of the network topology and geo-distributed systems such as DNS and data centres".

According to Jyothi, when it comes to the Internet, the greater risk from such phenomenon, also known as ‘space weather’, is posed to submarine cables compared to land cables and that “the US has a higher risk for disconnection compared to Asia".

She says that the CMEs can produce “Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) on the Earth’s surface through electromagnetic induction", which “in extreme cases… has the potential to enter and damage long-distance cables that constitute the backbone of the Internet".

The underwater optical fibre cables themselves are not vulnerable, Jyothi says, but notes that the long-haul cables “have repeaters to boost the optical signals… [that] are vulnerable to GIC-induced failures, which can lead to the cable being unusable".

How To Protect Vulnerable Infrastructure From CMEs?

Jyothi says that it can take between 13 hours to five days for the cloud of magnetised particles released by a CME to travel to Earth. Which means that if such an eruption is detected in time, then actions can be taken to protect equipment and infrastructure.

Nasa, in fact, says that there is “a fleet of heliophysics observatories in space [that] are always on the watch for these explosions". And, just like experts on Earth can use data and modelling to predict weather phenomena, space researchers, too, run “simulations and can make predictions about when the CME will arrive at Earth".

“They then alert appropriate groups so that power companies, airlines, and other stakeholders can take precautions in the event of a solar storm. For example, if a strong CME is on its way, utility companies can redirect power loads to protect the grids," it says.

Jyothi says that “similar to power grids, powering off is the easiest solution for equipment damage prevention" when it comes to the Internet, although she points out that that “only provides limited protection since GIC can flow through a powered-off cable".

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first published:September 12, 2021, 14:05 IST