The Sun’s outbursts could trigger an “internet apocalypse.”
We’ve long known that solar storms can wreak havoc on satellite communications and even affect the power grid on the ground.
Charged particles being ejected by the Sun, ranging from the intense eruptions of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun known as solar flares to the more powerful but slower expulsions of plasma and magnetic radiation known as coronal mass ejections, can distort our planet’s magnetic field.
And if a particularly massive storm were to hit one day — more likely as the Sun enters one of its most active periods — it could trigger what professor of physics and astronomy at George Mason University Peter Becker is calling an “internet apocalypse.”
“The internet has come of age during a time when the sun has been relatively quiet, and now it’s entering a more active time,” he told Fox Weather, referring to the Sun reaching the most ferocious period of its 11-year cycle.
“It’s the first time in human history that there’s been an intersection of increased solar activity with our dependence on the internet and our global economic dependence on the internet,” he added.
A solar flare-induced internet blackout isn’t nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. Take the Carrington Event, which took place in 1859 and “took out the telegraph system,” Becker told Fox News, with operators getting “electrocuted.”
To prevent the internet and other communication systems from going down, Becker and his colleagues have been working on an early warning system that could give scientists enough time to “put satellites in safe mode” or “take transformers off-line from the grid, so they don’t fry.”
In August he and his team received a federal grant of upwards of $13 million, a collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory, to come up with such a system.
But predicting when these storms will hit the Earth’s orbit and atmosphere is still exceedingly difficult, with Becker likening it to the challenges of predicting earthquakes.
As for “hardening the internet” to protect it in the long term, Becker told Fox Weather that corporations simply don’t have enough of an incentive — a worrying indictment, considering the next big storm could be right around the corner.
“The internet was simply not designed to handle this level of communication interference, and, consequently, is considered a very ‘soft’ type of infrastructure,” Becker said in an August statement announcing the federal grant. “Hence, the period from 2024 to 2028 is a time when the entire internet could conceivably be knocked out for a period of weeks to months in the event of a really extreme solar flare.”
The risks are palpable. Beyond oure precious browsers going blank overnight, such blackout could have severe knock-on effects around the globe, plunging it into a “worldwide recession,” Becker added.
More on solar flares: There’s Something Weird Going on With the Sun