Severe solar storms, or ‘cannibal’ coronal mass ejections (CMEs), could take down satellites, damage power grids and destroy internet connectivity.
Severe solar storms, or ‘cannibal’ coronal mass ejections (CMEs), could reportedly take down satellites, damage power grids and destroy internet connectivity. Sunspots and other solar events are known to cause widespread power outages, but experts are now warning that they could also result in an “Internet apocalypse.” Sun outages are known to affect television broadcasts, stock market transactions and mobile communications as they impact satellites in geostationary orbit. However, such events rarely severely affect people in their day-to-day life.
A study recently detailed how solar phenomena can potentially disrupt global internet services. According to the research, coronal mass ejections could cause long-lasting global internet outages that could last days. With the highest impact expected to be near the earth’s magnetic poles, Europe and North America will reportedly be more at risk from such events compared to Asia and Africa. The research also suggested that the undersea cables that digitally connect the globe would be the most affected, while local optic fiber infrastructure might escape relatively unharmed.
While the scariest predictions about the impact of CMEs on the world’s digital infrastructure are yet to come true, new reports now claim that geomagnetic storms caused by serial CMEs hit the earth earlier this month. According to Space.com, the earth was hit by medium-sized geomagnetic storms on Nov. 3 and 4. More are expected in the coming months and years. Solar events such as CMEs reportedly have a cyclic pattern, increasing in intensity every 11 years or so. Over the past several years, there’s been very little solar activity of note, but that situation is changing for the worse, with more significant and more destructive solar storms expected in the next few years, affecting power grids, mobile communications and internet connectivity.
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The job of tracking such storms rests with the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Bill Murtagh, a program coordinator at the SWPC, the ‘solar minimum’ witnessed over the past few years is in the process of changing to ‘solar maximum’ in 2025, and this month’s storms are just the precursor to what’s coming. He also described the latest solar events as ‘cannibal solar storms’ where a minor storm is followed by a massive CME that comes from behind and engulfs the storm in the front, or ‘cannibalizes’ it to become bigger and more dangerous.
The strength of these storms depends on the size of the CME and how it aligns with the earth’s magnetic field, but they are always bad news for satellites and other communication equipment on earth and in the geostationary orbit. The SWPC tries to minimize damage by preparing relevant parties about any impending solar storms. Once it detects any solar activity, it notifies all power grid operators in the U.S. and Canada to prepare them for any eventuality. According to Murtagh, small-scale storms might result in some voltage irregularities, but these are eminently manageable, and the possibility of something going wrong is low. However, large-scale cannibal CMEs can cause significant damage to power grids and internet connectivity, he said.
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Source: Space.com, Independent
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