‘Cannibal’ solar storms are heading towards the Earth - and could take down satellites, power lines, and the internet

Experts predict that a particularly severe solar storm could cause an ‘Internet apocalypse’ because of lacklustre infrastructure

Adam Smith
Thursday 11 November 2021 16:12
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Solar Storms Could Cause An “Internet Apocalypse”

Solar storms ‘cannibalising’ one another will happen over next four years as the Sun exhibits more extreme activity, scientists predict.

Over the past week a series of geomagnetic storms struck the Earth as the Sun starts its new solar cycle, which takes place every 11 years and will reach its peak in 2025.

A series of coronal mass ejections – which involve the emis­sion of electrically charged matter and accompany­ing magnetic field into space – hit the Earth over the last week, following a major solar flare on Halloween.

Occasionally, these ejections can happen so frequently that later ones travel faster than their predecessors and merge with the slower ones.

"That first CME essentially works its way through the 93 million miles and almost clearing a path out for other CMEs to come in behind it," Bill Murtagh, a program coordinator at the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Space.

"Sometimes we use the term ‘cannibalising‘ the one ahead."

The team at NOAA use a spacecraft called the Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr) which is one million miles away from Earth in the direction of the Sun. When a CME hits the craft, scientists know that it will be between 20 or 30 minutes until the storm reaches the planet.

CMEs threaten power grids and satellites but are usually manageable.

"This kind of level of storming we’ve had hundreds of examples, so we have a good sense for what it will do to the grid," Murtagh said. "They’re seeing it, they’re feeling it, we’re seeing some of those voltage irregularities ... but at this level of storming it’s very manageable."

However, with this specific kind of ‘cannibalising’ CME, the results can be far more severe. "We have determined for all practical purposes that our worst-case scenario for the extreme geomagnetic storm event scenario will indeed be this." Murtagh said. "It’s just that the CMEs were not that big — but that process happened here, where we had back-to-back two, three different CMEs came sweeping in together”, adding that there are “a lot of unknowns in the space weather business."

In the worst-case scenario, a solar storm may be calamitous enough to place the entire world into an “internet apocalypse”.

In that event, power lines, cables, and satellites that support GPS could be damaged - and experts say we have no idea how resilient the current infrastructure of the internet is to large solar activity.

“Since CMEs often originate in magnetically active regions near sunspots, a larger number of sunspots will increase the probability of a powerful CME. If this estimate proves accurate, it will also significantly increase the probability of a large-scale event in this decade,” Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi from the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research said.

Massive solar storms like these have struck before, but never at a time when electricity has been so vital.

Last century, multiple fires broke out in electricity and telegraph control rooms in several parts of the world, including in the US and the UK, due to magnetic fields generated on Earth by one of the largest solar storms to have ever hit the planet.

Space weather events such as these should be seen as “wake-up call[s]”, according to Dr Jeffrey Love, a geophysicist in the Geomagnetism Program of the US Geological Survey (USGS), who says if such solar superflares were to strike Earth today, it could bring even more devastation.

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