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Solar storms pose “internet apocalypse”: large undersea cables are too vulnerable

It sounds like the plot of a Michael Bay movie. There is a great solar storm and suddenly, the apocalypse: we ran out of internet. Communications could crash, and that dystopian-looking scenario is actually a less remote possibility than we’d like to think.

This is confirmed by scientists from the University of California who have talked about how an ejection of the coronal mass of the sun would cause a radiation wave that would leave KO to the GPS network but that could also wreak havoc on the large submarine cables that are a fundamental part of the internet skeleton.

We have bad news and good news. Which ones do you want first?

The researchers who have conducted the study analyzed the possible impact of that great solar storm, and in doing so they had good and bad news.

Cables

The good news is that local and regional internet infrastructure would not be particularly affected: Optical fiber is basically immune to geomagnetically induced currents.

Solar storms: the direct and indirect effects on Earth of the most intense solar flares

The bad ones are actually very bad. Although that local infrastructure would not be (practically) affected, the risk would be much higher for submarine cables connecting continents and transmitting an enormous amount of data.

A solar storm could affect several of these cables and cause a massive loss of connectivity, causing entire countries to be isolated and disconnected from data sources despite being able to have local connectivity.

Coronal mass ejections are (thankfully) rare

For these scientists “our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have a very limited understanding of the extent that the damages could have. “

Ejection
Ejection

There have in fact been few such events recorded in our history. The one that took place in 1859, called the ‘Carrington Event’, is known, and which caused that Compass needles will dance wildly and also that the northern lights were seen at the equator, in Colombia.

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In 1989 a moderate solar storm brought down the Quebec hydroelectric network and caused a nine hour blackout northeast of Canada, but by then the internet was in its infancy.

Why submarine cables are so vulnerable

The problem with submarine cables is that their construction repeaters are included They are located at distances of between 50 or 150 km depending on the cable. With them it is possible to amplify the signal and avoid loss of information.

Repeater
Repeater

The repeaters that are placed on submarine cables could be severely affected by these large solar storms.

The problem is that the electronic components of those repeaters are vulnerable to geomagnetically induced currents, and several failures in several repeaters could cause connectivity in that submarine cable to be partially or completely lost.

This is the map of all the submarine cables that shape the Internet

According to the study, high latitudes are the most exposed to this type of large solar storms, and that makes for example Asia is less exposed since Singapore, which is a “hub” for many submarine cables, is located near the equator.

The thing changes with the cables that cross the Pacific and the Atlantic and that could be more at risk if they are located in those latitudes. It is possible that thanks to the redundant design of the internet disconnections could be alleviated, but many basic services such as DNS could be KO by this circumstance and severely affect communications.