We may marvel at the Northern Lights, but that same solar storm energy could one day create what one researcher described as an “internet apocalypse.”
“The internet is entering a new era of activity,” explained Professor Peter Becker from George Mason University. It’s the very first time in history that increased solar activity has coincided with the global economic dependency on the Internet.
Becker is a lead investigator in a project involving the Naval Research Laboratory and the School to create an early-warning system.
How Could A Solar Superstorm Affect Earth?
Becker stated that there have been many (solar flares). “Flares occur when the sun brightens and we can see the radiation. That’s the muzzle flash. The coronal mass eruption (CME) is what we call the cannonshot. We can see the flash but the coronal mass can be ejected in any direction. But we know when it’s heading towards Earth. This gives us 18 to 24 hours’ warning before the particles reach Earth and begin messing up Earth’s magnetic fields.
CMEs are large blobs of superheated materials that fly through space. A small percentage of the CME hits Earth and distorts its magnetic field. The third prong of the plug, which is usually used to discharge excess electrical charge, now acts as “a large electrical circuit.”
Becker explained that “you could get currents from the ground.” Everyone thinks that their computer is grounded and they are safe. But in an event such as this, you could end up frying items you thought to be relatively safe.
All of the following are vulnerable: power grids, satellites with copper sheaths in underground fiber optic cables, GPS and navigation systems, radio transmitters, and communication equipment.
It Happened Before
It’s happened before. Becker cites the Carrington Event of 1859. This was the last CME to reach Earth.
Becker stated that the sparks literally flew off the lines of the telegraph. Some operators were electrocuted when the wires carried high voltage. This was not what they were supposed to be doing. But the magnetic field variations had become so strong that it almost became like a generator and drove currents down the telegraph lines.
He said that the heavy-duty wires used in the telegraph system were more robust than the electronics of today.
Becker explained: “If you put that on top of the internet, with all its delicate electronics, then you could fry the entire system over a period from several weeks to months, depending on the time required to fix all the infrastructure, including all the electronic switches and all the closets of electronic equipment in these office buildings.” “That could be all fried. We’re dealing with a pretty serious issue. It’s not only communications.”
Becker estimated that the U.S. alone would suffer an economic disruption of between $10 and $20 billion dollars per day.
The Solar Cycle Is Peaking Making Solar Storms More Plentiful
Ice cores and tree rings are proof of superstorms that were much more powerful in the past. A solar flare that was possibly hundreds of thousands of times stronger than Carrington’s flare impacted Earth about 14,000 years ago.
NOAA predicted that the current solar cycle would peak and accelerate in 2024.
Becker said that predicting solar storms was like predicting earthquakes. We just can’t control the situation. He stated that there is a 10% chance that “something very large” will happen in the next decade that could wipe out the Internet.
How Can We Protect Electronics?
He and his team then watch the sun, and model flares. He said that flares reach Earth within 8 minutes. This sets the clock for a possible magnetic field disturbance in 18 to 24 hours.
“If there is an alert, every second counts. You can put the satellites into safe mode.” Becker explained that you can turn transformers off from the grid so they do not fry. There are things that you can do to mitigate this problem. Then, on a longer-term basis, you talk about hardening the internet. It’s a challenge because it’s like an insurance policy. “You may never need it and it would cost billions to harden the system.”
He said that most large companies don’t have an economic incentive at this time to harden up their systems.