The internet is not only in the cloud, but also at the bottom of the ocean. Your online data is carried around the world through a crisscrossing network of hundreds of submarine cables, a handful of which are over 12,000 miles long and stretch between continents. In total, there are about 2.3 million miles of underwater internet cables on the ocean floor – enough to circumnavigate the earth 52 times. So what if a natural disaster damages some of those cables?
According to Dr. Sangeetha Jyothi, a professor at the University of California Irvine, said such an event could potentially spark an “internet apocalypse”. And as if that wasn’t scary enough, her research also suggests that this scary scenario could occur sometime in the next two decades. She argues that a rare solar super storm could likely cripple parts of the global internet infrastructure and cause months of downtime.
But there is also good news: we may be able to avoid this disastrous future if we properly prepare for it.
Taylor Frint / Digital Trends
Create a cosmic catastrophe
The sun’s surface is an extremely volatile place. Since it bubbles and splatters like a giant ocean of incandescent plasma, solar flares often belch off the surface, hurling electromagnetic radiation into space. Fortunately, most of these ejections pose no problem to our planet, either because they are not large enough to pose a significant threat or because they are simply aimed in the wrong direction. But from time to time – about once a century or so – we are unlucky and a particularly large “solar super storm” breaks out in our direction.
Fortunately, the Earth’s atmosphere directs and shields most of the radiation generated during a solar superstorm, preventing it from harming us. But the accompanying electrically charged matter can interact with the earth’s magnetic field and (in addition to creating breathtaking auroras) disrupt everything from satellite communications to power grids to – as Jyothi argues – our underwater internet cables.
The likelihood of such an occurrence is relatively small (1.6% to 12% per decade to be exact), but there is also a great lack of data on these events, as they are seldom in a predictable and easily analyzed way for scientists Way to occur. However, since the past few decades have been relatively calm, Jyothi’s predictive models suggest that we could see another major solar storm within the next 20 to 25 years.
Solar super storm concept image NASA
It has been exactly a century since a major solar disruption last hit Earth in 1921. Known as the New York Railroad Superstorm, electrical fuses blown and resulted in widespread failures in railroad and underwater telegraph systems. The upside was that this happened before the advent of modern day connectivity, so the impact on the world was somewhat limited. But if a solar storm of this magnitude happened today, the resulting damage could leave 20 to 40 million people without electricity for up to two years, scientists estimate, and the economic impact could reach trillions of dollars.
Since the last major storm in 1921, other solar storms of much lesser intensity have occurred. One of them, in 2003, disrupted Japan’s space program. Another, in 1967, nearly started a nuclear war because the United States believed Russia had disrupted its missile detection systems when in fact it was caused by a sun shower.
Our tender World Wide Web
So how exactly could these solar superstorms create problems for the modern internet? Underwater internet cables are immune to any electrical damage a solar storm could cause because they carry signals in the form of light, not electricity. The problem lies in the interval of about 30 to 90 miles where they are equipped with repeaters to amplify these signals over long distances. These repeaters are susceptible to electrical interference, and if even one of them fails, it could theoretically bring the entire underwater route to a standstill.
MAREA underwater cable. Rabat
Also, since the modern internet has never been stress tested for a solar storm, there is little data on how these modules could recover. The good news is that all submarine cable routes are unlikely to be damaged.
The effects of a solar storm will be most pronounced in regions around the Earth’s magnetic poles. For example, Asia has been less exposed to risk since Singapore, a hub for a number of submarine cables located on the equator. As a result, while several regions may not experience a power outage, they could be isolated from continents and countries that do. For example, the US could be decoupled from Europe.
The internet in disaster
Fortunately, the internet is fundamentally designed to be resilient. If repeaters fail, the Internet can automatically reroute traffic over another route that is still operational, says Dr. Umakishore Ramachandran, professor of computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“There’s enough redundancy at the core of the network,” Ramachandran told Digital Trends, “that such failures are detected at the higher levels of the network stack in order to reroute data flows around failed routes.” Your internet speed will at most drop because of the congestion, but it is unlikely to be “catastrophic,” he added.
The bigger cause for concern, says Ross Schulman, a senior technologist at the Open Technology Institute in New America, is the “edges of the network.” This includes, for example, the internet connections that we and smaller businesses depend on. If enough stretches are damaged, the remaining bandwidth can be limited to essential services like healthcare, leaving private customers in the dark for weeks with no digital communication. In addition, satellite communications and tools like GPS systems will go offline and take a critical backup with them in disaster situations.
Submarine cable map
Internet outages and power outages during natural disasters are no stranger to the world. Hurricanes, earthquakes and more had previously plunged cities into darkness for days. And just as people coped with these events, Ramachandran believes that edge computing could be the answer to a solar super storm.
Local, decentralized networks have previously allowed communities to stay in touch and essentially build their own internet to communicate updates. Similar projects could at least temporarily provide relief in the event of an “Internet apocalypse”. However, if this theoretical internet apocalypse were to last for weeks or months, governments would have to turn to other solutions that could restore the global internet, especially in more affected areas. When an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck remote areas in Peru, an internet beaming balloon from the now-defunct Loon division of Google was able to do its job in about 48 hours.
There is also a real chance that the power grids will fail for weeks and our entire internet infrastructure will simply run out of power. In such a scenario, says Schulman, “alternative solutions such as wireless meshes like Commotion or Google’s Loon could emerge as flexible alternatives.”
Experts fear that a solar super storm is just one of many natural disasters threatening the internet and the economies that depend on it. As climate change escalates, the earth is expected to see a surge in disasters and preparing for it must be a top priority – a conversation that has yet to become mainstream discussion.
“We have seen localized examples of such problems during Hurricane Sandy in New York, which took many data centers offline, cell phones were down, and internet traffic was disrupted,” added Schulman. “It is important to make sure that this infrastructure is resilient to coming changes.”