A team of researchers is working on creating an early warning system for detecting solar activity that could damage technology and potentially “wipe out the internet.”
Power grids, communications and GPS systems, and more are highly vulnerable to what one scientist warned of as an “internet apocalypse” should a solar superstorm strike, and a project is underway at George Mason University and the Naval Research Laboratory to be ready for such an event.
“The internet has come of age during a time when the sun has been relatively quiet, and now it’s entering a more active time,” university Professor Peter Becker said, according to Fox Weather.
“It’s the first time in human history that there’s been an intersection of increased solar activity with our dependence on the internet and our global economic dependence on the internet,” added Becker, who is the lead investigator on the team working on the project.
“There have been a lot of (solar) flares,” Becker explained.
“Flares are when the sun brightens, and we see the radiation, and that’s kind of the muzzle flash. And then the cannon shot is the coronal mass ejection (CME). So, we can see the flash, but then the coronal mass ejection can go off in some random direction in space, but we can tell when they’re actually going to head towards Earth,” he told Fox Weather, adding that this “gives us about 18 hours of warning, maybe 24 hours of warning, before those particles actually get to Earth and start messing with Earth’s magnetic field.”
He further illustrated that large blobs of plasma that fly through space in a CME can affect the Earth, distorting the magnetic field of our planet and resulting in a third prong on the electric plug becoming “like a big electrical circuit.”
“And then you get this kind of insidious thing where you could actually get current from ground,” Becker said. “So everybody thinks, ‘Oh, my computer’s grounded, I’m okay,’ but in an event like this, if you drive inductive currents to the surface of the Earth, it can almost work backwards, and you can end up actually frying things that you thought were relatively safe.”
And the scenario has unfolded before, Becker noted, citing what’s known as the Carrington Event in 1859 when a CME reached Earth.
“It actually took out the telegraph system, sparks were literally flying off the telegraph lines,” he said. “Some operators got electrocuted because the wires ended up carrying high voltage, which they were never supposed to do, but the magnetic field variations became so strong it almost became a generator system and drove these currents down telegraph wires.”
“So you lay that on top of the internet with its very delicate electronics, you’re talking about something that could really fry the system for a period of several weeks to months in terms of the time it would take to repair all the infrastructure – all of the electronic switches, all of these closets of electronics in all these office buildings,” he told the outlet. “That could all be fried. So we’re talking pretty major. And it’s not just communications. It’s economic disruption, too, obviously.”
The professor predicted this could hit the U.S. economy with disruptions costing $10-$20 billion per day.
Updated prediction for Solar Cycle 25! NOAA predicts solar activity will increase more quickly & peak at a higher level than previously predicted. Solar Cycle 25 to peak between Jan to Oct 2024. Learn more: https://t.co/9clI7YiFtN pic.twitter.com/ucY2weIERV — NOAA Space Weather (@NWSSWPC) October 26, 2023
Even with the challenges of predicting natural events, Becker warned that there is a 10 percent chance that “something really large is going to happen that could potentially wipe out the internet” in the next decade. So the investigation focuses in part on tracking solar flares, which could help predict the timing of any impending catastrophe.
“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,” the professor said. “So there’s things you can do to mitigate the problem. And then, more long term, you’re talking about hardening the internet. 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.”