Will a geomagnetic storm shut down internet forever?

There’s no internet and you would find yourself panicking trying to connect to your co-worker. The WiFi gets disconnected for a minute and you feel like smashing the laptop in frustration. Have you ever wondered what would happen if the internet were to shut down indefinitely? Of course, extreme introverts would rejoice, but most would lose their jobs.  

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The internet cannot be shut down with a flick of a switch. But a geomagnetic storm is capable of damaging internet connectivity, electricity and other powered communication systems, enough to plunge the world into an internet apocalypse for months on end. 

And a geomagnetic storm is in fact colliding with the Earth… even as you read this on the internet. This storm was estimated to hit Earth on April 14 and 15, 2022. It is predicted to be a G2-level solar storm. 

FIRST, if you don’t know, a geomagnetic storm is caused by surface explosions on the Sun. When a bubble bursts, a cloud of electrically charged particles of electrons and protons is released into the space. Sometimes it heads towards the Earth, and smashes into the planet’s magnetic field, causing a geomagnetic storm. 

So, is there an impending internet doom ahead? If you are reading this article; then it means that the answer is ‘no’. A G2-level geomagnetic storm is unlikely to have a major apocalyptic impact on our communications system. But a severe geomagnetic storm is very much capable of doing just that and history is proof. 

HOW WILL THE INTERNET AND COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM BE AFFECTED?

Electricity: A geomagnetic storm of a severe level can cause damage to the components connected to our power grids across the world, like transformers, relays and sensors.  This would essentially mean large scale power outages.

Every power-dependent device would stop working, battery devices will die once it runs out of power. It would affect the GPS services. GPS is used from our mobile phones to the planes in the sky.

TBH, most of us would be lost just one block down in our neighbourhood without GPS in modern times.

 

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And from GPS to the Internet…

The World Wide Web cannot just be shut off by flicking one switch. There are multiple switches that power the internet – from the long and short cables running under the seas and the ground to the satellites in orbit. A combination of electricity and specific internet-related damage can essentially cut off internet access significantly.

  • The undersea cables connecting continents are said to be more vulnerable. It would mean that countries would be cut off at the source.
  • But local internet facilities may still operate depending on electricity availability, though the speed might be hampered.
  • A lot of our defence capabilities around the world and even healthcare are dependent on the internet. So a loss of the internet would plunge the defence and healthcare sectors into a chaos of life and death.

The situation seems a bit too far-fetched; again, given that you’re still reading this on the internet.

But has it never happened, in history?

HISTORICAL GEOMAGNETIC STORMS:

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The Carrington Event: The most severe geomagnetic storm ever recorded in history occurred on September 1 and 2, 1859. Well, that was long long before the internet, so we have no way to tell you whether it could have cut off internet or not. But… that massive geomagnetic storm is considered to be a G5-level storm. At the time, the event brought damage to telegraph systems, with people reporting receiving electric shocks, paper catching fire suddenly and even being able to operate the machines with batteries disconnected (natural electrical charge).

The Miyake Event: A G5-level geomagnetic storm still doesn’t sound like an apocalyptic event. But scientists say that data from the Antarctic ice core samples have evidence of a massive geomagnetic storm that occurred around AD 774, which is known as the Miyake Event. Comparing the Carrington Event’s and Miyake Event’s carbon-14 generation, the former only produced 1% of the latter.

Miyake Event’s severity is considered beyond the G5 level. So if the Earth is to be hit with a Carrington Event 2.0, there would be power and internet disruptions lasting weeks, but if there is a Miyake Event 2.0, it would be disruptions spanning months.

(btw, congratulations, you’ve still got internet)

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