Though you can’t tell it with the unaided eye from here, the sun is incredibly active. A massive nuclear reaction hurtling through space, sometimes it and its sunspots are more active, meaning they emit more heat and radiation, and sometimes they are less active. Further, it can let fly with plasma, superheated matter, that distorts Earth’s magnetic field and can destroy electronics.
That sun activity, called Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), is incredibly dangerous for electronics, many of which are quite fragile and, in the case of infrastructure, expensive and difficult to replace. That’s because the electric charge created by the CME can fry them, something that if it happened at a large enough scale could take down the internet.
Such is what Professor Peter Becker of George Mason University warned in a recent interview with FOX Weather, saying, “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. 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.”
He continued, “There have been a lot of (solar) flares. 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. And that 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.”
Continuing, he said that the solar activity could knock out even electronics that you think are safe, saying, “And then you get this kind of insidious thing where you could actually get current from ground. 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.”
Describing what happened to telegraph wires and operators when a similar event happened in 1859, Becker claimed, “It actually took out the telegraph system, sparks were literally flying off the telegraph lines. 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.”
Then, comparing those days to today and how severe and long-lasting the damage could be, Professor Becker said, “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. That could all be fried. So we’re talking pretty major. And it’s not just communications. It’s economic disruption, too, obviously.”
Professor Becker did, however, also noted that steps can be taken to mitigate the problem is people are paying attention and use advance warning to respond promptly and properly, saying, “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. 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.”
Featured image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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