NASA’s solar storm ‘Internet Apocalypse’ alert explained

solar flare

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This warning is not new, we have been told for some years that there is a strong likelihood that a powerful solar storm could potentially disrupt the internet for an extended period of time. But if you think; “Oh well, I could do with some time away from social media” is all there is to it, think again.

Many things that happen in nature are cyclical. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and extreme weather conditions all have a tendency to recur within certain periods of time. The earth is constantly shifting and moving, but scientists can often roughly predict when an event might occur based on how it happened in the past and by monitoring it in the present.

However, this natural disaster does not originate from underground, but from space. Scientists a NASA We’ve known for a long time that a massive solar storm is expected within the next decade, but more recent information has brought to light how much damage this storm could potentially cause. In an article written for The Economic Times, it is stated that one such problem this solar storm could cause is the complete shutdown of the internet for several months.

What is a solar storm?

northern Lights
Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images

The sun, as we know, is a giant ball of gas. Mostly hydrogen and helium to be exact, held together by gravity due to its mass. Occasionally, the sun emits huge bursts of energy that take the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These solar flares can vary in intensity and have an impact on our planet, one of the main ones that we can see visibly is that they can add a major boost to the northern lights, or “northern lights”, making them brighter and more visible.

This is because the aurora borealis is created by electronically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere at high speed and reacting to its magnetic field. When a strong solar flare occurs, it intensifies the amount of particles entering our upper atmosphere and creates a stronger reaction.

A very strong solar storm could potentially disrupt radio signals, power grids and our communication systems as electronically charged particles interact with our magnetic field. To put into perspective how powerful a solar flare can be, the energy ranges from the equivalent of ten million hydrogen bombs to one billion hydrogen bombs. Keep in mind that the explosion itself is happening approximately 94.5 million miles (152.07 million km) away, we’re just getting the blast.

How does it affect the internet?

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If a large wave of electronically charged particles is emitted from the sun and enters our atmosphere, it could disrupt the electrical grid and interfere with radio waves and GPS systems. Scientists such as Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California believe that the infrastructure of the Internet is also at risk, especially undersea Internet cables with the storm affecting the electronic internals of cell towers. If enough repeaters are damaged, the entire operation will be unusable. Though he wrote in his 2021 study on the subject that the chances of that happening are between 1.6 and 12 percent.

However, there isn’t enough to handle these kinds of situations, putting internet security at risk during one of these solar superstorms. While the network could come back online, it could take months for the internet to come back if something like this were to happen. As reported by Wired, Jyothi says, “There are currently no models available on how this could play out. We have a greater understanding of how these storms would impact energy systems, but that’s all on land. In the ocean it is even more difficult to predict.

It’s not all apocalyptic news though, many have differing opinions on how big of an impact one of these storms could have on our planet, with Thomas Overbye, director of the Smart Grid Center at Texas A&M University, saying our lack of understanding them is part of the problem.

There are some people who think a geomagnetic disturbance would be a catastrophic scenario and there are others who think it would be a less major event. I’m a bit in the middle. I think it’s something we as an industry want to be prepared for, and I’ve been working to develop tools that assess risk. But there are many other important things in the industry as well.

Why are we worried now?

Electric pylons
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The sun recently emitted a rather large solar flare on June 20, 2023. The flare was considered an X-sized flare, meaning it was one of the largest flares observed. There is a possibility that this same location or “sunspot” may be emitting another of these flares and is currently facing Earth. Previously it was predicted by NASA that we would face a major solar storm in 2025, but some are starting to think that this estimate was a bit below, and instead it will arrive this year.

After the chaos that has been the global response to COVID-19, we are being shown how ill-prepared our governments are for these kinds of global situations. That could mean we wouldn’t have a strategy in place if we lose the internet and that goes beyond, “Oh, I can’t get my daily Instagram fix or rage against strangers on Twitter.” The modern world is run through the internet: our communications, our jobs, our health care, our education, our global security and our government are all online. Losing it would mean a huge crisis.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are things put in place to minimize the risk, with NASA using the Parker Solar Probe and artificial intelligence to help predict when a solar flare might happen and give us a 30 minute warning meaning we could temporarily shut down. The NASA site states; “This could provide sufficient time to prepare for these storms and prevent severe impacts to power grids and other critical infrastructure.”

No need to start running around like headless chickens. The chances of a full-blown internet leak are extremely low, and if it were to happen, well, there’s not much your average Joe can do about it. Maybe start reading books again, keep important notes out of the cloud, and back up important files and documents if needed. These are all pretty standard stuff anyway, and hey, we have other, more pressing matters to worry about when it comes to our planet than this right now.

About the author

Laura Polish

Laura Polish

Laura Pollacco is a freelance writer at We Got This Covered and has been immersed in entertainment news for almost an entire year. After graduating from Falmouth University with a degree in fashion photography, Laura moved to Japan, then back to England and now back to Japan. She doesn’t watch as many anime as she would like, but she keeps up to date with all things Marvel and “Lord of the Rings”. She also writes about Japanese culture for various Tokyo-based publications.

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