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Solar “super storm” could cause “web apocalypse” and global blackouts

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Ninety-three million kilometers away, a photovoltaic storm is brewing with the possibility of causing an “Internet apocalypse”, according to the latest findings.

University of California, Irvine Assistant Professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi presented the new analysis last month at the Association for Computing Machinery’s annual convention for its Special Interest Group on Data Disclosure (SIGCOMM ).

In the report, Jyothi warned that an unmitigated PV “super storm” could “cause large-scale internet outages spanning the entire globe and lasting for several months” – highlighting shortcomings in submarine cables, part important Internet infrastructure.

Most of the time, we are shielded from the fixed radiation from the Sun, known as the photovoltaic “wind”, due to the ionosphere, in other cases, often referred to as magnetic shielding of the Earth. With nowhere to go, these magnetic particles are attracted to the North and South Poles, producing an impressive aurora before dissipating.

But typically, PV flares trigger what is called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a PV storm strong enough to penetrate our protection and wreak havoc on absolutely anything that is powered by electromagnetism – which almost directs the fire. world.

The potential injury from a disastrous 2012 CME, which narrowly missed Earth, was estimated to have cost the United States alone as much as $ 2.6 billion.

“Our [internet] infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event, ”Jyoti recently told WIRED, ticking off the results: widespread blackouts, mass traffic jams and disruption of the global supply chain, to name but a few some.

The solar “wind” from the Sun is blocked by the magnetic shielding of the Earth, causing these geomagnetic particles to disperse in the direction of the North Pole or the South Pole, which produces an aurora.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Local and regional web infrastructure typically relies on optical fiber, which is unaffected by geomagnetic currents, or short-range grounded cables, which are inherently shielded from electromagnetic surge. But it is a special story with submarine cables, which reach continents via the Internet. While the cables themselves are not weak, the digital repeaters they contain, which help amplify the optical sign, are vulnerable to damage from geomagnetically induced currents. If enough repeaters explode, the entire line could be shot down.

For some countries, damage to these backbone cables could reduce their connectivity over the feed – not to signal potential damage to satellites, which enable much of the web.

This happened earlier than, the researchers said. In 1921, a photovoltaic storm sparked fires in power tools around the world, from practice room management rooms to telegraph dispatch facilities. Again, in 1989, a medium-severity photovoltaic storm knocked out the facility in northeastern Canada for 9 hours, but before the Internet infrastructure boomed.

Jeffrey Love, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) geomagnetism program, told The Independent that the effect of the so-called 1921 rail storm in New York City may be much better right now.

“When we look back to that time, anything electrical related was not as important in 1921 as it is today,” he said.

In an interview for NextGov.com in May, Dr. Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), informed Dana A. Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNT), that the presence of the Sun The electromagnetic cycle, which lasts about 11 years, is expected to be rapid.

“We have every reason to believe that the current solar cycle that began in December 2019 may be the most active since the 1970s. This is of particular concern for GPS,” said McIntosh, who estimated a probability of 35-45% that a CME disrupts GPS service, for several days, one day over the next decade.

He continued, “Strong solar storms can charge the atmosphere and prevent signals from passing for days. The strongest can damage or even destroy satellites.

Researchers, as well as lawmakers, have already mentioned GPS options, pushing Congress to pass the National Synchronization Resilience and Safety Act in 2018, asking the Department of Transportation to plan a terrestrial backup for service providers. global navigation, in case the satellites are rendered ineffective. . Despite the considerations, no progress has been made, according to RNT’s Goward.

Even with the most concerted efforts of the authorities, it will take five or six years to determine the programs and encourage, or place, compel customers to protect themselves and important suppliers, ”warned Goward. “Such a timeline will lead us well into the coming solar danger zone. “

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