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The internet isn’t just in the cloud — it’s also at the bottom of the ocean. Your online data is ferried across the world through a crisscrossing network of hundreds of undersea cables, a handful of which are over 12,000 miles long and stretch between continents. In total, there’s approximately 1.3 million miles of subsea internet cable lying at the bottom of the ocean — enough to encircle the globe 52 times. So what happens if a natural disaster damages some of those cables?
According to Dr. Sangeetha Jyothi, a professor at University of California Irvine, such an event could potentially create an “internet apocalypse.” And as if that’s not scary enough by itself, her research also suggests that this frightening scenario could come to pass sometime in the next two decades. She argues that a rare solar superstorm is likely to cripple parts of the global internet infrastructure and cause an outage that could last for months.
But there’s also some good news: We might be able to avoid this disastrous future if we prepare for it properly.
The surface of the sun is an extremely volatile place. As it churns and sputters like a vast ocean of white-hot plasma, solar flares often get belched out from the surface, flinging electromagnetic radiation out into space. Thankfully, most of these ejections aren’t a problem for our planet, either because they aren’t big enough to pose a significant threat, or they’re just aimed in the wrong direction. But every so often — roughly once per century or so — we get unlucky, and a particularly big “solar superstorm” erupts in our direction.
Luckily, Earth’s atmosphere deflects and shields most of the radiation created during a solar superstorm, preventing it from harming us. But the accompanying electrically charged matter can interact with the earth’s magnetic field and (in addition to creating stunning auroras) disrupt everything from satellite communications to power grids to — as Jyothi argues — our undersea internet cables.
The likelihood of such an incident is relatively low (1.6% to 12% per decade, to be precise), but there’s also a severe dearth of data on these events, since they rarely occur in a predictable manner that’s easy for scientists to analyze. However, since the last few decades have been relatively quiet, Jyothi’s predictive models suggest we could witness another big solar storm within the next 20 to 25 years.
It’s been exactly a century since the last time a significant solar disturbance hit Earth in 1921. Known as the New York Railroad superstorm, it blew electrical fuses and led to widespread outages in railroad and undersea telegraph systems. The upside was that this happened before the advent of modern connectivity, and as a result, the impact on the world was somewhat limited. But if a solar storm of this magnitude were to take place today, scientists estimate that the resulting damage could leave 20 million to 40 million people without electricity for up to two years, and the economic impact could reach trillions of dollars.
More solar storms of much lower intensity have occurred since the last big one in 1921. One of them, in 2003, threw Japan’s space program into disarray. Another, in 1967, nearly started a nuclear war because the United States believed Russia had interfered with its missile detection systems when, in fact, it was caused by a solar shower.
So how exactly might these solar superstorms create issues for the modern internet? Undersea internet cables are immune to any electric damage a solar storm could inflict since they shepherd across signals in the form of light, not current. The problem is at the interval of about 30 to 90 miles, where they’re equipped with repeaters to amplify those signals over long distances. These repeaters are vulnerable to electrical disruptions, and if even one of them malfunctions, it could theoretically bring down the entire undersea route.
Since the modern internet has never been stress-tested for a solar storm, there’s also little data on how these modules might recover. The good news is that it’s unlikely to damage all the submarine cable routes.
The effects of a solar storm will be most prominent closer in regions to the Earth’s magnetic poles. So, for instance, Asia faces less risk since Singapore, a hub for a range of undersea cables that lies at the equator. Therefore, though several regions might not experience a blackout, they could be isolated from continents and countries that do. The U.S., for example, could be disconnected from Europe.
Thankfully, the internet is fundamentally built for resilience. If repeaters do fail, the web is capable of automatically rerouting the traffic through a different, still operational route, says Dr. Umakishore Ramachandran, a computer science professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“There is enough redundancy in the core of the network,” Ramachandran told Digital Trends, “that such failures are recognized at the higher levels of the network stack to reroute flows around failed routes.” At most, your internet speeds will decrease due to the spike in congestion, but it’s unlikely “to be catastrophic,” he added.
The bigger cause for concern, says Ross Schulman, a senior technologist at the New America’s Open Technology Institute, is the “edges of the network.” This includes, for instance, the internet connections that we and smaller businesses rely on. If enough routes are damaged, the remaining bandwidth may be restricted to essential services like health care, leaving residential customers in the dark and without digital communications for weeks. Plus, satellite communication and tools like GPS systems will go offline, taking away with them a critical backup in disaster situations.
The world is no stranger to internet outages and blackouts in a natural disaster. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and more have previously plunged cities into darkness for days on end. And just like how people coped during those events, Ramachandran believes edge computing could be the answer in a solar superstorm.
Local, decentralized networks have previously allowed communities to stay in touch and essentially build their own internets to communicate updates. Similar projects could come to the rescue, at least temporarily, in the event of an “internet apocalypse.” However, if this theoretical internet apocalypse were to last for weeks or months, governments would need to turn to other solutions that could restore the global internet, especially in harder-hit areas. When a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Peru’s remote areas, an internet-beaming balloon from Google’s now-defunct Loon division was able to provide service in about 48 hours.
There’s also a real chance that electric grids could go out for weeks, and therefore all our internet infrastructure simply wouldn’t have any power. In such a scenario, Schulman says, “alternative solutions such as wireless meshes like Commotion or Google’s Loon could rise as a flexible alternative.”
Experts fear a solar superstorm is just one of the many natural catastrophes that threaten the internet and the economies dependent upon it. As climate change escalates, Earth is expected to witness a rise in disasters, and preparing for them must be the top priority — a conversation that has yet to enter the mainstream conversation.
“We’ve already seen localized examples of this kind of trouble during Hurricane Sandy in New York, in which many data centers were taken offline, cell phones were out of service, and internet traffic was disrupted,” Schulman added. “Making sure that this infrastructure is resilient against coming changes is important.”