One of the biggest threats to the world’s telecommunications infrastructure is large emissions of radiation and magnetic energy from solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME), also known as solar storms. As human civilization has become more and more dependent on the internet and technological infrastructure, the rare occurrence of severe space weather events has posed a much larger threat to industry and human civilization as a whole than ever before. Researcher Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, in her research paper, termed the impact of a solar superstorm event as the ‘Internet Apocalypse,’ where she examines the worst-case scenario of global internet outages from damaged electronic systems caused by rare solar superstorms.
The unique behaviour of the sun’s magnetic field gives rise to the ejection of radiation, particles, and matter from the surface of the sun, called space weather. The sun is made up of plasma, which is an extremely hot gas of ionised particles. The magnetic field of the sun is created in a system which is called the solar dynamo , where the motion of the electrically charged plasma in a magnetic field induces a current, which in turn generates more magnetic field . Astrophysicists have deduced the shape of the magnetic fields at the surface of the sun by examining the motion of the plasma in corona loops in the sun’s atmosphere.
Image 1: Corona loops of plasma at the surface of the sun
Sunspots are regions of relatively lower temperatures on the surface of the sun where very strong magnetic fields prevent heat from within the sun from reaching the surface. In these regions, strong magnetic fields become entangled and reorganized. This causes a sudden explosion of energy in the form of a solar flare often accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, which is the ejection of electrically charged solar matter from the sunspot .
Some of the electromagnetic energy released by the flares, in the form of x-rays, and ejected particles can reach the earth. However, the earth has its own protective mechanisms against the regular occurrence of mild solar flares and CMEs. The upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere absorb the influx of x-rays. The earth is also surrounded by its own magnetic field, called the magnetosphere, which acts as a protective shield against the ejected solar matter from a CME that reaches the earth. Therefore, telecommunication infrastructure on the surface of the earth avoids the harmful effects. However, telecommunications satellites and GPS satellites further away from the earth’s surface are left more exposed and have been damaged or rendered inoperable due to solar flares . Human health can also be compromised by direct exposure to harmful radiation and high energy particles emitted due to solar activity. On the surface of the earth, we are shielded from the harmful effects of space weather, however, astronauts in space must use special protective gear due to the extra exposure.
One of the positive side effects of space weather interacting with the earth is the spectacular display of the aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern or southern lights, where charged particles become trapped in the earth’s magnetosphere and accelerate towards the earth’s poles. They collide with atoms and molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, releasing a burst of light and a colourful display in the night sky .
Image 2: The deflection of coronal mass ejections by the earth’s magnetic field
Image 3: The Aurora Borealis
More worryingly, there is the unlikely chance of a large-scale coronal mass ejection striking the earth in its direct path causing widespread damage to electrical infrastructure even on the surface of the earth. Such an event has been named a ‘solar superstorm.’ The enormous ejection of electrically charged solar matter causes shock waves in the magnetosphere and releases its energy toward the earth in a geomagnetic storm. As the earth’s magnetic field varies, electric currents are induced on the earth’s conducting surfaces by electromagnetic induction. These are called geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) . This, in turn, induces electrical currents in the power grid and other grounded conductors, potentially destroying the electrical transformers and repeaters which keep the power grid running and damaging the vast network of long-distance cables which provide internet.
There has also been growing concern about the weakening of the earth’s magnetic field over the past few centuries, with some physicists believing it is because of the long overdue flip of the earth’s magnetic poles, something which occurs around every 200,000 years, but has not happened in over 750,000 years. This could potentially leave humans and telecommunication infrastructure on earth more exposed to more moderate and frequent space weather events.
The last large-scale geomagnetic storm, called the Carrington Event, was recorded in September 1859. Its main impact was on the mode of telecommunication at the time, the telegraph network, with reports of telegraph wires catching fire, electrical shocks, and messages sending even when it was disconnected from power. The CME was so strong that auroras could be seen from as far south as the Caribbean! In March 1989, magnetic disturbances caused by a strong solar storm wiped out the entire electrical grid in the Canadian province of Quebec . Of course, since 1859, modern civilisation has become very dependent on electrical infrastructure to provide homes and businesses with power and internet for our constant connectivity demands, so a storm on the scale of the Carrington Event could have catastrophic implications for the world’s economy and society in general. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the damage caused by a Carrington-like event today could cost over $2 trillion and multiple years to repair . By analysing the records of solar storms over the past 50 years, Peter Riley of Predictive Sciences inc. calculated that the probability of such an event happening in the next 10 years is 12%.
So what can be done to minimise the damage caused by a large-scale geomagnetic storm? As the sun is just coming out of a period of inactivity in its solar cycle, we have not experienced a significant solar storm to test the resilience of modern technological infrastructure against such events. However, nowadays we have a series of satellites which monitor solar activity, such as NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer , which gives forewarning of a large incoming solar storm that would take at least 13 hours to reach earth. This gives power grid operators enough time to shut down their stations and minimise damage caused as it passes. Even with this precaution, an unprecedented Carrington-like event will likely cause widespread damage to the earth’s telecommunications and internet infrastructure, so better damage prevention and recovery plans will need to be put in place to ensure the maintenance of vital technological systems that the world’s population depends so heavily on.
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