This is the solar storm to worry about. It could take down civilization.
This video is sponsored by Morning Brew. As the temperature in her home drops below zero following a blackout, Texas resident Briana Blake hoists a canvas off a wall, breaking it apart before she tosses it into the fireplace for warmth. Across town, Kimberly Hampton, as her family’s home lost power, starts burning firewood just to heat up breast milk warm enough to feed her 7 month old.
Simultaneously, Angel Garcia, has been rationing oxygen tanks for 5 month old son who was born with premature lungs, while she burns her daughter’s baby blocks for warmth. These are scenes from Texas in early 2021. For days, thousands of residents were without power following a winter storm. But now fears are mounting that another blackout, caused by solar storms, could not only trigger power failures, but also cut off internet access in whole communities for months, possibly even years. Could solar flares and other magnetic energy from our beloved sun be endangering our sacred internet? Could solar activity kill your Facebook account? Hopefully. Let’s find out! If you managed to avoid the global internet apocalypse, like this video and leave a comment below! You can also hit subscribe and the little bell to make sure you’re always up to date on our videos! One more thing.
Before I discovered this video’s sponsor, Morning Brew, my mornings usually went like this. First, I’d wake up at my desk in a cold sweat. I make my first litre of coffee for the day. Then, I check the news online, but it’s always so cluttered with random noise that I can never figure out what’s important. This is why I’m so happy that today’s episode was sponsored by Morning Brew! Morning Brew is a free daily newsletter delivered Monday through Sunday that gets you up to date on business, finance, and tech news in short snappy bursts. Morning Brew makes sure that I know the most relevant info for me, before anyone else.
I recently learned that Epic Games used to give employees every second Friday off, but just reversed that policy, angering a lot of their workforce. I also learned that Tesla is worth around 15 times more than Ford, even though Ford brought in 115 billion dollars more than Tesla in the last year alone! Isn’t that wack? From one Brew Crew to another, thank you Morning Brew for sponsoring! Since it’s free and signing up takes less than 15 seconds, there’s no reason not to subscribe to their newsletter. Click the link in our description below to subscribe to Morning Brew today! And with that out of the way, Let’s get into it! So I’ll bet you’ve heard of solar flares, but what are they anyway? The sun itself is a giant ball of compressed, flaming gas, and much of the energy contained in the sun is managed by magnetic fields. These fields constantly shift across its surface, and they control all solar activity, from flares to coronal mass ejections. Solar flares are the largest explosive events in our solar system, characterized by intense blasts of radiation associated with large releases of magnetic energy centered on sunspots— Sunspots, for background, are small black spots on the surface of the sun, localized on magnetic fields that have grown strong enough to rise to the surface, allowing parts of the area to cool, from balmy 6000 degrees celsius, to a cozy 4200 degrees celsius. Y’know, like the top side of your pillow versus the bottom.
Solar flares are divided into 5 classes, A which are so small we can barely record them, B which are too small to hit Earth, C which are still small but can impact Earth, M which will knock out radio signals around the poles, and X which have global ramifications. You should also know that this scale is logarithmic, meaning that each step up in classification, is a multiple of ten. An X level flare is ten times stronger than an M level flare. But there is more to worry about than just solar flares! Coronal Mass Ejections are, as the name suggests, large blasts of mass from the sun’s corona, the upper atmosphere of the sun above the surface.
Sometimes when the sun’s magnetic fields close in on themselves, gasses in the upper atmosphere of the sun can build up before releasing in a giant explosion which sends billions of tons of matter millions of miles an hour out into space. Solar flares fire out radiation, while CMEs fire out matter, usually plasma. They often occur together, but they can happen independently of one another.
To understand how these solar activities can impact our daily lives, we first have to learn about what happened the last few times our planet got blasted by the Sun. The Earth, and planets in our solar system have been getting roasted by the Sun ever since there was, well, a sun at the middle of it, but humans have only been able to measure it for the last 100 or so years. In 1859, as Darwin was publishing On the Origin of Species, not two years before the onset of American Civil War, and a full 20 years before the invention of the lightbulb, a giant wall of matter flew through space towards Earth.
This was the first recorded “Coronal Mass Ejection”. On the morning of September 1st, a hobbyist astronomer named Richard Carrington looked up at the sky through his telescope and saw something interesting— “two patches of intensely bright and white light”. Unbeknownst to him, telegraphs were being fried across the globe, and in multiple American cities, people gazed up at the sky in awe at the perfectly illuminated northern lights. One Aussie in Perth called it “a scene of almost unspeakable beauty” as “lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith, but always becoming a rich purple when reaching there, and always curling round, leaving a clear strip of sky”. Auroras are usually only seen as far North as 70 degrees latitude, aka, really far North, like Kuujjuaq Quebec or the Finnish Lapland.
However, when geomagnetic energy is high, auroras can be seen further south. During the Carrington Event, they could be seen as far south as 25 degrees latitude, which includes all of Japan, Europe, and the majority of the continental United States. Update, even as we’re completing this episode, the Aurora Borealis could be seen as far South as Iowa on Tuesday, October 12th because of a CME that launched out of the sun on the 9th. As the Carrington Event erupted from the sun’s corona, it triggered large-scale telegraph outages, hundreds of equipment fires, and even electric shocks to telegraph operators across the world.
Tons of matter, including protons, electrons and other solar material, propelled through space, traveled millions of miles an hour and got from the Sun to the Earth in under 18 hours. According to NASA, the Carrington Event was “arguably, the greatest and most famous space weather event of the last two hundred years”. At the time it occurred, the world was quickly industrializing, but now, over 160 years later, electrical equipment is more than just telegraphs.
With our widespread technology today, another Carrington level solar event could be catastrophic. If it were to hit us today, it would knock out power for anywhere from 20-40 million people in the United States alone for two whole years. Researchers believe it’s possible that another Carrington level event could hit us in the next few years! Geomagnetic storms in 1882, and 1921 likewise knocked out telegraph communications across the globe, but as recently as March 10th 1989, a large solar flare fired off the sun, and shortly after, another Coronal Mass Ejection poured out a billion tons of gas right at us. As the gas hit Earth’s atmosphere, radio signals in Russia were jammed, and two days later, a tide of electrically charged solar plasma hit the Earth’s magnetic field, triggering a geomagnetic storm.
The storm charged the ground beneath most of North America and a blackout ensued on March 13th when the Hydro-Quebec power grid, distributing electricity to Quebec and exporting to the Northwestern United States, shut down after safety mechanisms sensed an overload. For about 9 hours, 6 million people were without power, and over 200 power grid issues had to be resolved across the United States. Auroras could be seen as far south as Cuba, and funny enough, since it took place during the cold war, many people believed what they saw were thermonuclear detonations. Far above us, satellites fumbled across the sky for hours, and the Space Shuttle Discovery reported issues with their sensors. A few months later, in August, another solar flare fired out towards Earth.
Larger than the one in March, it damaged microchips across the globe and even managed to knock out all trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange for three hours! Simultaneously, another blackout blanketed Quebec in darkness again. Hydro-Quebec attempted to mitigate the damage by reducing power on its line by 20 percent when it received the storm warning, but nonetheless, the surge was powerful enough to overload the system again. Another unexpected side effect of geomagnetic storms is what is referred to as “satellite drag”, a phenomenon that occurs when storms heat up our upper atmosphere, which begins to expand, pushing any satellites back down to Earth. After the March flare, over 6000 satellites descended about a kilometer from their original positions, forcing NASA and other organizations into months worth of readjustments.
But how do solar flares actually impact electronics? Solar flares and CMEs discharge radiation and particles which hit the upper part of our atmosphere, the ionosphere, creating radio waves which we call a geomagnetic storm. These radio waves create new currents, adding energy into otherwise passive electrical grids, threatening to overload them. Remember, radiation isn’t just nuclear— radiation is just the word we use to measure the energy found in photons. For example, electricity coming out of your wall plug oscillates around 50 hertz, give or take what country you’re in, radio waves typically broadcast around 85-105 million hertz, whereas X-rays, and Gamma Rays sit between 5-50 quintillion hertz. So the solar radiation flying out of the sun is the same thing as what your phone uses for power, it’s just like, y’know a few billion times stronger and wildly out of control. As it interacts with the ionosphere, the wavelengths slow down, eventually reaching a point where they can be conducted by power lines, threatening to overload power grids.
It’s kind of like when lightning strikes power lines. It floods the cables with tons of power that it wasn’t expecting, and the material can’t handle it, so it explodes. A geomagnetic storm is just that, but slower, and everywhere.
When it comes to our global internet, it may surprise you that we are still very dependent on physical cables to connect across oceans. In a world of wifi, and satellite access, it seems almost vintage to think of the internet travelling around in wires and cables still. Surely we must have progressed past that, right? Wrong! Just like Keanu, wires and cables are never gonna die! But like we learned earlier, when solar flares impact our atmosphere they can flood power grids with extra power, so they could probably do the same for our internet grids too, right? Both yes and no actually! If a solar flare caused a blackout, your wireless internet would be lost, that is, unless you have a backup power source like a generator or a battery. However, what really matters is how the internet gets to your home from your service provider. They use fibre optic cables, which transmit information via light without actually using electricity, so they are not directly vulnerable to geomagnetically induced currents.
However, long-distance cables require what are called power feeding lines to “boost” the signal. On land, these power feeding lines are easy to fix in times of major geomagnetic activity, however, fixing these repeaters on long-distance undersea cables is much harder. These feeding lines are placed along the entire length of the cable at intervals of around 50-150 kilometers. If enough of these repeaters fail, an entire undersea cable will fail to transmit information.
Not only that, these cables are only grounded at intervals of hundreds of kilometers, so there are few opportunities for excess power to harmlessly flow from the cable into the ground. It’s also helpful to remember that the actual seafloor, in terms of composition, also varies, and some places could be more conductive than others. This is all to say that there’s a lot of variables involved that could become a problem if the Earth is struck by another large solar flare, or CME like back in 1859. In fact, these cables have failed in the past, though not due to solar activity. Back in 2008, a ship, attempting to moor in a bad storm, accidentally severed a fibre optic cable near the port of Alexandria in Egypt, cutting off up to 70% of internet traffic to India, Egypt, and the UAE. This led to a cascading series of failures limiting traffic, and economic growth for dozens of countries for months across Asia and the Middle East.
Similarly, in March 2018, the submarine cable system Africa Coast to Europe [ACE] was severed, taking the internet down for two whole days in Mauritania, impacting the rest of West African countries including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Gambia, causing disruption and chaos while reminding how fragile internet infrastructure is. Speaking of fragile internet infrastructure, some of you might have been there for the great Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp failure of 2021. Usually, major tech services maintain what is called a four nines uptime.
Meaning they are available for 99.99% of the time, equating to around 53 minutes of downtime per year. Facebook and its subsidiary services, on October 4th were down for 6 hours. Cutting off over ⅛ of the world’s population from the services they use to communicate.
But that’s just one service, caused by one mistake. On top of blackouts from geomagnetic storms, communications disruptions could make recovery even more difficult. If a solar flare or CME hit us midwinter, horrid scenes of families huddled together for warmth as they burn books for heat would repeat, but with internet failures, we would be in the dark both literally, and figuratively. It’s likely that without any means of communication, the death toll could be much higher, and it could take much, much longer to repair any broken infrastructure. But fret not, smart people are already planning for the future. Dr Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, of the University of California, Irvine, in her paper entitled Solar superstorms: planning for an internet apocalypse, defines many of the ways that our global network is vulnerable, and how we can improve.
Jyothi reassures us that the majority of short range regional access is safe, since fibre optic cables don’t use electricity, and they’re grounded at much shorter intervals, making them less vulnerable to power surges. What worries Jyothi is the lack of data on the effect of solar activity on today’s technological infrastructure. The sun has cycles, much like the Earth has seasons, and the latest solar forecast predicts that we will be entering into peak activity between November 2024 and March 2026. The last major flare took place in 1989, just before the rise of the internet as we know it today, and as any aging millennial will tell you, technology is only developing faster. We don’t actually know what will happen, but even after power returns following a flare internet outages may persist for days, or even weeks longer.
A major blackout would cost around 7 billion dollars a day in the US alone. The study also evaluated multiple countries by the possible damage of a large solar flare. The US would lose connectivity to both Canada and Europe, whereas China would be largely unaffected. The UK would lose most of its long distance cables, and New Zealand would be stuck with only being able to communicate with Australia. While Google and Amazon’s hosting services are fairly prudent about spreading out data centers to multiple continents and into regions with low probability of failure to minimize disruptions to their services, Facebook would be significantly more vulnerable.
with their data centers primarily located in the northern hemisphere. Well, we could all do without Facebook once in a while. Unfortunately for the Musk-heads, Starlink universal satellite internet is no less susceptible to solar activity, particularly CMEs, which would riddle Elon’s super special satellites with ultra-fast electrons and protons knocking them out. When it comes to how we can plan for the future, Jyothi states that usually the simplest answers are the best. Spreading out data centers so the likelihood of them all failing will be reduced is one option.
Governments can also make plans for organized shutdowns or slowdowns of particularly vulnerable power grids and undersea connections to ensure they won’t be damaged by power surges. Loss of power, and internet outages can have real repercussions on society at large. The internet may seem like a luxury, but it’s far more than that today.
For many people, internet access is needed to do their jobs. There’s a real threat to people’s lives as well. To return to the Texas power crisis, estimates put the death toll as high as 700 people, purely from hypothermia following a simple blackout. Imagine if power was down, and all phone and internet communications too.
If you were in an emergency, there would be no way to contact anyone for help. While there may not be a lot we can do individually aside from having batteries or an emergency generator lying around, we can contact our local representatives to tell them that improving our internet infrastructure should be a priority. Else our internet will become... inter-not.