A recent Wired headline read, “A Bad Solar Storm Could Cause an ‘Internet Apocalypse.’” A few days later, Forbes ran the article, “Why America Should Suddenly Prepare For A Billion-Dollar ‘Internet Apocalypse’ Caused By The Sun.” Both publications were sharing concerns raised by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, an assistant professor of computer science at UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. Abdu Jyothi presented her research, “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” at SIGCOMM 2021, the annual conference of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication.
“I was expecting some interest due to the relevance of the topic, but I was surprised by the extent of attention this work received,” says Abdu Jyothi. “From tech companies to the general public, several people have been reaching out to me.”
As noted in the paper, “One of the greatest dangers facing the Internet with the potential for global impact is a powerful solar superstorm.” Such storms, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), occur when a large mass of highly magnetized particles are ejected from the sun. A CME can produce geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) on the Earth’s surface through electromagnetic induction. “In extreme cases,” Abdu Jyothi explains in the paper, “GIC has the potential to enter and damage long-distance cables that constitute the backbone of the Internet.” She further points out that the economic impact of an Internet disruption for a day in the U.S. is estimated to be over $7 billion, asking, “What if the network remains non-functional for days or even months?”
After analyzing the threat posed by solar superstorms and the potential impact on Internet infrastructure, Abdu Jyothi quantifies that impact using real-world datasets and a variety of failure models. She then suggests ways to “manage the perils” of such events, but her research is ongoing.
“This paper takes the first step toward understanding the risks faced by the Internet; however, there are many unknowns,” says Abdu Jyothi. “I’m looking at several next steps, including developing better models for network equipment failures, understanding end-to-end behavior of Internet applications during large-scale network partitioning, and solutions for reconnecting a partitioned Internet.”
Abdu Jyothi concludes her paper by stressing the estimated 1.6% to 12% likelihood of a solar storm occurring within the next decade that could cause catastrophic disruption. “Paying attention to this threat and planning defenses against it … is critical for the long-term resilience of the Internet.”
— Shani Murray