Solar Storms and (possibly) a Global Internet Meltdown

I am beginning to see a pattern emerge in my posts. I write about a subject, and I find a few things that are natural extensions to that soon after. I am trying to figure out if writing the original piece trains my eye to look for similar content. Your guess is as good as mine here.

Although what it certainly does is, it helps me create a latticework of information on related subjects. I hope you find it as useful as I do.

I wrote about the resilience of the design of the internet, specifically in the face of a forced lockdown during the pandemic, an exponential increase in internet usage and our never-ending appetite for streaming content.

Here’s a short excerpt –

Internet Service Providers and other networks plan for traffic increases into their infrastructure design. They are typically prepared for a 30% increase in traffic annually. After the lockdown began, traffic increased by 20% a week (eek!).


A study one year on from the pandemic, that assessed internet traffic and speeds, gave a thumbs-up to internet operation during the pandemic. It was down to a combination of original design to find efficient routes, the flexibility that cloud computing offers, and automated additional capacity provisioning to handle unexpected traffic spikes.

The Internet Did Not Melt Down, ThisIsWater

There appears to be another looming threat and this time it could successfully knock out our infrastructure and result in prolonged global outages. The impact of these outages however would go far beyond low streaming speeds and could trigger significant losses, and we’d be lucky if it was just the economic sort.

Why? The Sun (not The S*n – a bit personal this one), and solar storms and flares, that come with the territory of being a massive bright ball of hot plasma.

I must admit – when I first read solar flares, I couldn’t resist making an association with Dragon Ball Z and a photo of one of the founding members of the Earth’s Special Forces in action =P

Source: Dragon Ball Wiki

Unfortunately, Tien and the very fictional Earth’s defenders will not be able to help us with this bit of a pickle.

When the Earth is in the directional path of a solar storm, it messes with the planetary magnetic field and produces geomagnetically induced currents. Depending on the severity of the solar storm, these currents have a high probability of damaging our communication infrastructure.

GPS and communication satellites which are directly exposed to solar storms will suffer from lost connectivity during the event, potential damage to electronic components, and in the worst case, orbital decay and re-entry to earth (particularly in low earth orbit satellites such as StarLink)

Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse, SIGGCOM ’21

The cables itself are immune to these currents (because it carries light and not electric signals), but the supporting infrastructure, repeaters in this case, which is required to boost signals at every 50 to a 150 km distance, is highly susceptible to damage. This renders the entire cable line unusable in such an event.

Why is it happening now?

As surprising as it may sound, we did not cause this. I, for one, am amazed that there is something bad brewing and humanity isn’t responsible for it.

The Sun has cycles of activity and the last three decades was a period of particularly low activity.

Bad news – that is changing.

Worse news – a large part of our technological advancement has occurred during this period of lower solar activity. We do not know if our infrastructure is resilient enough to handle powerful solar storms.

The largest geomagnetic storm of the 20th century, which occurred in May 1921, named the New York Railroad superstorm based on its impact on NY telegraph and railroad systems, also caused widespread damage across the globe. Note that the strongest [solar storm] of the past century happened before widespread electrification. A smaller scale [solar storm] had caused the collapse of the power grid in the entire province of Quebec, Canada, and over 200 grid problems at various locations in the US in 1989. However, this was only a moderate scale [solar storm].

Worst news – the forthcoming cycle for the sun is expected to be one of the strongest on record.

Recent estimates for the number of sunspots at the peak of this cycle are between 210 and 260 (a very high value). In contrast, the previous cycle that ended in 2019 had a peak sunspot number of 116. Since [solar storms] often originate in magnetically active regions near sunspots, a larger number of sunspots will increase the probability of a powerful [solar storm].

Several studies have assessed the probability of the occurrence of a high-impact solar event from 1.6% to 12% per decade, and it is highly likely to happen in the next couple of decades because of relatively lower activity in the recent past.

The question now is about preparedness of our communication infrastructure, its vulnerabilities, and possible mitigation methods. You might also find it pertinent to note that humans on the surface of the earth aren’t at any risk from this. Not to say, we do not have other problems to worry about.

The study analysed the location and distribution of our internet infrastructure and attached probabilities of impact based on our understanding of the flow of geomagnetically induced currents from high-impact solar events.

Here are a few key findings –

Solar storms are highly likely to affect regions in higher latitudes, unfortunately also where the bulk of the communication infrastructure is located. The reason is as simple as higher concentration of internet users in the global north.To be specific, locations above 40°N and below 40°S are likely to have a higher impact. Although, only 16% of the world population reside in this region.

Longer cables are at more risk. Sub-marine cables are significantly longer with a median distance of 775 kms, and some stretching to 39,000 kms. That puts them at significant risk, which only makes it that much more problematic because they are extremely difficult to repair. Land cables are not as vulnerable to solar activity, given a larger percentage is shorter than 150 kms and do not need repeaters.

While the spread of the risk is global, the United States is likely to be the most affected. Even under a low-failure scenario, connectivity with Europe is likely to be completely lost with an 80% probability. It is a 100% loss in a high-failure scenario. However, intracontinental connectivity within Europe is safe given the high concentration of shorter, terrestrial cables. Asian and African countries are not expected to be affected as much, although China’s vulnerability is relatively higher compared to its regional counterparts because of longer cables. And Facebook’s data centres are more vulnerable than Google’s, because of a higher concentration in vulnerable geographies. You can read more here.

What does all this mean for preparedness?

For starters, it is imperative to account for risks from solar storms into any future planning for communications infrastructure.

We need to rethink the distribution of links and communication cables in higher latitudes. There has been a higher propensity to lay cables through the Arctic with the ice sheet melting, and that falls squarely in the highly vulnerable region. Adding more links to Central and South America is integral to maintaining global connectivity.

In the event of an extreme solar activity, there should also be mechanisms to isolate connectivity to cables from vulnerable regions to avoid a cascading effect.

New deployments of data centres should account for the vulnerability to extreme events and constantly monitor system-level resilience.

Effects of solar storms on low-orbiting satellites is not fully clear and further effort must be expended towards that. They are integral to ensuring seamless global communication.

In conclusion and whilst sincerely trying not to sound like a messenger of doom – even a low failure scenario means significant disruption to global connectivity and for prolonged periods of time. This means that everything that relies on shared networks for communication from banks and financial services to hospital management systems to social safety nets for the vulnerable will be directly affected. This will wreak havoc besides causing significant losses.

It is not enough to rest on the fact that certain regions are less affected, because the world wide web does not work like that. At the same time, it is equally important to note that the study is based on the results from simulations and estimates from models built to match reality. Therefore, it could play out differently. The most we can and should do is to plan with foresight for such extreme events with diligence.

Should the Sun Gods choose to smite our species’ ability to surf the inter web, these guys and their decentralised internet sure could have come in handy…

… or a few floating balloons couldn’t hurt our chances either. Oh wait

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