Along with the ethereal northern lights displays, which are occurring with more frequency as the solar activity approaches its fevered peak, comes what scientists warn could be an “internet apocalypse” in which electronic communications suddenly and with little or no warning stop working.
Scientists at George Mason University and the Naval Research Laboratory are collaborating under a $13.6 million Department of the Navy grant to learn more about the effects of violent and more frequent solar storms 93 million miles from Earth on internet and satellite communications.
The implications of solar activity strong enough to knock out satellite communications could be profound, from disrupting military operations and energy grids to complicating life for millions of Americans who use smart-home technology, rely on GPS to guide them from Point A to Point B, and go online to conduct business, order essential medications and shop for everything they eat and wear.
The internet came of age during a relatively quiet period of solar activity, but violent storms predicted to increase over the next decade could test its backbone.
“The internet was simply not designed to handle this level of communication interference, and, consequently, is considered a very ‘soft’ type of infrastructure,” principal investigator Peter A. Becker, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the university’s College of Science, said in a news release.
The warning of an “apocalypse” isn’t just hyperbole. Scientists have long known that fierce solar storms can knock out communications systems.
For example, an 1895 solar storm known as the Carrington Event spewed electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth, causing telegraph lines to spark and electrocuting operators. The northern lights danced around the globe, extending as far south as Jamaica. Also notably, in 1989, a solar storm knocked out the Quebec power grid for hours. And in 2012, a storm just missed Earth.
The intensity of the sun’s fury increases daily, with Solar Cycle 25’s expected peak next year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center expects the peak to be earlier and more intense than previously thought. The peak for solar storm activity is now predicted to occur between January and October 2024, and then gradually level off.
“Hence, the period from 2024 to 2028 is a time when the entire internet could conceivably be knocked out for a period of weeks to months in the event of a really extreme solar flare,” Becker said.
Because of the world’s heavy dependence on the internet for information, communications and global commerce, such a scenario could create “an unprecedented disaster for modern society, potentially triggering a worldwide recession,” Becker warned.
The George Mason researchers are collecting data on solar flares and coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. Flares, our solar system’s strongest events, are intense bursts of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots, according to NASA. Flares are seen as bright areas on the sun that can last from minutes to hours.
CMEs are “huge bubbles of coronal plasma threaded by intense magnetic field lines that are ejected from the sun over the course of several hours.” They most often occur simultaneously with solar flares, but also can happen spontaneously.
The frequency of CMEs varies during each solar cycle — about once a week at solar minimum, but an average of two to three CMEs per day at solar maximum.
The sun has consistently been spitting out CMEs over the past year and a half. X-class flares, the most powerful classification of solar flares, are also occurring with more frequency. An X1.5-class flare on Aug. 7 caused radio blackouts across North America, according to NASA.
The collaborators, who include George Mason faculty, students and staff, will collect and analyze five years’ worth of data on violent solar storm activity, which includes bursts of radiation, high-speed electrons, protons and other highly energetic particles that are launched into space that could reach Earth in as little as a day and knock out communications systems.
The investigation also includes the study of black holes and neutron stars to help scientists understand similar processes occurring in the solar atmosphere and how they may affect life on Earth.
The George Mason research is especially important to the Navy, and more broadly the Pentagon, Becker said. One area of focus is an early warning system to better protect the public and country’s infrastructure.
“If we have a warning, every minute counts because you can put satellites in safe mode. You can take transformers off-line from the grid, so they don’t fry,” Becker told Fox Weather. “So there’s things you can do to mitigate the problem.
“And then, more long term, you’re talking about hardening the internet.” Becker continued. “And that’s, of course, an economic challenge because it’s sort of like an insurance policy. You may never need it, and it would cost trillions to really harden the system.”