Wednesday, November 29, 2023

As we marvel at the beauty of the Northern Lights, the same solar storm energy that creates this spectacle could potentially lead to what a researcher terms an "internet apocalypse."

 As we marvel at the beauty of the Northern Lights, the same solar storm energy that creates this spectacle could potentially lead to what a researcher terms an "internet apocalypse."

Professor Peter Becker of George Mason University highlights the unique challenge humanity faces as the sun becomes more active just when our dependence on the internet and the global economy linked to it is at its peak. This intersection prompted Becker and his team, in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory, to embark on a project to develop an early warning system.

Scientist Claims Solar Superstorm Could Create An Internet Apocalypse

Solar superstorms, characterized by solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME), pose a significant threat to Earth. Becker explains that while flares provide a visible warning with their brightening of the sun, the real concern lies in the unpredictable directions CMEs can take. Fortunately, scientists can predict when these charged particles are heading toward Earth, providing approximately 18 to 24 hours of warning before they impact the planet and interfere with its magnetic field.

CMEs involve large blobs of plasma hurtling through space, some of which collide with Earth, distorting its magnetic field. This distortion can turn the Earth's surface into an unintended conductor, potentially leading to the flow of inductive currents. Contrary to the assumption of safety through grounding, this scenario could result in damaging electronic systems that were previously deemed secure.

Various critical systems, including the power grid, satellites, underground fiber optic cables, navigation and GPS systems, radio transmitters, and communication equipment, are susceptible to the effects of a solar superstorm.

Drawing parallels to the Carrington Event of 1859, the last time a CME reached Earth, Becker emphasizes the vulnerability of modern electronics compared to the sturdier telegraph wires of that era. The potential consequences of a solar superstorm could cripple essential infrastructure, leading to weeks or months of downtime for repairs, causing not only communication disruptions but also significant economic losses.

Becker estimates a staggering economic disruption of $10-$20 billion per day for the U.S. alone if such an event were to occur. Evidence from tree rings and ice cores suggests that superstorms in the past have been much larger, with a solar flare about 14,000 years ago potentially hundreds of times stronger than the Carrington Event.

As the current solar cycle peaks, with an expected peak in 2024 according to NOAA forecasts, Becker emphasizes the difficulty of predicting solar storms, likening it to predicting earthquakes. He suggests that while it's challenging to control the situation, preparations can be made to mitigate the impact. His team monitors the sun and models flares, aiming to provide as much advance notice as possible.

Becker emphasizes the importance of quick action in the event of a warning, allowing for measures such as putting satellites in safe mode and taking transformers offline to prevent damage. However, he acknowledges the economic challenge of long-term solutions, such as hardening the internet infrastructure. With a lack of economic incentives for large corporations to invest in such measures, the potential for an "internet apocalypse" remains a looming concern, with the odds standing at approximately 10% over the next decade.

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