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Solar Storm

The Next Solar Storm Might Bring an Internet Apocalypse to Earth

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Key Highlights:

  • A new study has been published to examine the threat that solar superstorms represent to Internet infrastructure
  • Researchers discovered several flaws in the current Internet topology and associated geo-distributed infrastructures
  • Researchers investigate the effects of Geomagnetically Induced Currents on various infrastructure components 

New Research to measure the Threat

A massive solar superstorm is one of the most serious threats to the Internet with the potential for worldwide repercussions. Although humans are protected from these storms by the earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, they can wreak severe damage to man-made infrastructure. The scientific community is generally aware of this threat, with modeling efforts and preventative measures being implemented, notably in the context of electricity grids. However, the networking community has generally neglected this danger throughout the construction of network topology and geo-distributed technologies such as DNS and data centers.

A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is often known as a solar storm. It is the directed ejection of a massive mass of highly magnetized particles from the sun. When the earth is in the direct path of a CME, these magnetized and charged solar particles interact with the earth’s magnetic field, causing a variety of impacts. In addition to stunning auroral displays, they generate Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) on the earth’s surface via electromagnetic induction.

Based on the power of the CME, GIC has the potential to infiltrate and destroy long-distance cables that form the Internet’s backbone in extreme instances. Recently, new research was presented at SIGCOMM 2021 to analyze the threat represented by solar superstorms to Internet infrastructure and the steps that can be taken to prevent their impacts. The new research paper is written by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Discovering Numerous Flaws

The greatest solar events on record happened in 1859 and 1921, long before modern technologies. They triggered widespread power outages and caused considerable damage to the communication network of the day, the telegraph network. The probability of extreme space weather events directly impacting the earth is predicted to be 1.6% to 12% each decade. More crucially, the sun has been in a phase of low activity for the past three decades, from which it is slowly emerging. “Since this low time of solar activity coincided with the fast rise of technology on earth, we have a limited understanding of whether the current infrastructure is durable against large CMEs,” noted Abdu Jyothi.

In this paper, researchers have identified various vulnerabilities in the design of the existing Internet topology and associated geo-distributed infrastructures. Furthermore, the researchers demonstrated that the distribution of Internet infrastructure is skewed with respect to the user population. Internet infrastructure components are concentrated in higher latitudes, which are vulnerable to solar outbursts.

Researchers also analyzed the effects of GIC on various infrastructure components and discover that submarine cables are the most vulnerable to destruction. They also indicated that the potential effect of solar superstorms across different regions varies widely. The United States is extremely sensitive to disconnection compared to Asian countries. “We discuss several open questions on improving Internet resiliency, including how to factor in solar superstorms during the design of Internet topology and other Internet sub-systems,” noted Abdu Jyothi.

Also Read: Scientists’ strange discovery hinting towards Glacial on Mars

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