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By on 15 May 2023

Category: Tech matters

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If you’ve seen this post from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) about the risk of Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) events — it’s time to be alert but not alarmed. In worldwide digital communications, there are all kinds of risks in a CME. NOAA wanted to give people a heads-up about an event that blanketed South America with a lot of energy, and they continuously monitor the situation, via their Space Weather site.

We’ve covered this before on the blog — Ulrich Speidel investigated the risks of solar storms to the modern Internet. In his post, Ulrich explains how solar storms can release charged particles that can interact with Earth’s magnetosphere and disrupt power grids, satellite communications, and other technological systems, including the Internet.

He discussed the 1859 Carrington Event. Widely considered a catastrophe, the Carrington Event had significant impacts on telegraph systems, which were the primary means of long-distance communication at that time. The Carrington Event spiked electric currents in telegraph lines, causing widespread disruptions, damaging telegraph equipment, and even leading to some telegraph offices catching fire. However, the event did not have significant impacts on other aspects of society, as the infrastructure at that time was relatively simple compared to today.

Ulrich also explored the challenges of mitigating the impacts of solar storms on the Internet, including the need for better monitoring, forecasting, and resilience measures. It’s a great outline of the issues in CME events.

It pays to remember that electrical power distribution is inescapably tied up with powerlines, which to a jet of charged matter from the sun, look pretty much like a big radio antenna — power systems can be taken offline by CME events as much as a direct impact on Radio Frequency (RF) services.

For objects in space, the risks can be severe. Enough energy can ruin hardware or reduce its lifetime and, unlike land-based systems, repair and replacement is often infeasible. With the emergence of rapid launch Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems, time to replace may be better than it used to be, but the impact on communications from losing a satellite in orbit shouldn’t be understated.

NOAA’s post discusses the return of ‘X-flares’, which are the most powerful type of CME, after a period of low solar activity. According to NOAA, solar activity follows an 11-year cycle, with periods of high and low activity, and recent observations suggest that the sun is entering a new solar cycle with an increase in X-flare activity. NOAA highlights the potential impact of X-flares on earth, including radio blackouts and disruptions to satellite communication and navigation systems.

While the likelihood of catastrophic impact from solar storms on the Internet is low, the potential risks, vulnerabilities, and mitigations must be considered by the Internet community. What if a Carrington-level event happened today?

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