What if the events of outer space could affect one of our most basic necessities—the internet? It may sound like it’s a plot line straight out of a sci-fi movie but it’s not as unrealistic as you’d imagine. Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, a researcher at the University of California, has revealed that solar flares could have an unexpected but powerful impact on the terrestrial power grids.
What is a solar flare?
Before that, let’s find out what a solar flare is. Simply put, a solar flare is a sudden release of magnetic energy that occurs on the surface of a star. It’s defined by Space Weather Live as ‘a sudden, rapid, and intense variation in brightness.’ It’s possible that some of the released energy reaches the Earth but it takes between 13 hours to 5 days to do so.
The last time a solar storm hit our planet was in 1859 and 1921, and it strongly disrupted the Earth’s magnetic field. The electrical infrastructure and communication lines were heavily disrupted all over the world. Jyothi fully believes in the possibility that it could happen again but she also says that ‘there is a serious lack of data.’ She explained:
There are no models currently available of how this could play out.
We have more understanding of how these storms would impact power systems, but that's all on land. In the ocean it's even more difficult to predict.
How will it affect the land?
According to the researcher, a fast-moving cloud of solar particles could cause faults in the undersea telecommunications cables that link continents. You may not know this, but there are more than 1.2 million kilometres of fibre-optic cables running under the seas and oceans. And in the seabed, there are more than 400 cables that feed the internet.
Solar flares could affect the functioning of these cables, ultimately depriving entire countries of internet access.
The impact flares may be powerful enough to destroy technology but Jyothi says they:
cannot enter the atmosphere and affect humans directly.
However, they will interact with the Earth's magnetic field and produce strong electrical currents on the Earth's surface, which can disrupt and even destroy various human technologies.