Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Could major solar flares really mess up the Internet of Everything?

Yes, the sun could do more damage than we think. It turns out that the sun is unusually quiet at the moment. I confess that I haven't followed the latest 11 year cycle since I left the shortwave broadcasting business in 2003. But I got a wake-up call today with this excellent video report from NASA.

Solar disturbances caused major communication outages when the sun was at the peak of its activity. Satellites were sometimes parked so as to try and shield them from a particularly nasty blast of the solar wind. This NASA video shows that, far from being shelved, scientists still have solar activity in their sights. Because the sun is going to get a lot more active again, and one wonders if those designing networks and airborne electronics are keeping this in mind. D-Day in Normandy was reportedly delayed by a day because of a sudden ionospheric disturbance wiped out a lot of HF communications. It wasn't just the weather on the ground. Although we are less dependant on HF for broadcast communications these days, solar mass ejections on the sun can have devastating effects on GPS navigation systems, as well as cross-country landlines. This article from National Geographic is worth reading if you're interested in more details.

"The sun has an activity cycle, much like hurricane season," Tom Bogdan, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, said earlier this month at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

"It's been hibernating for four or five years, not doing much of anything." Now the sun is waking up, and even though the upcoming solar maximum may see a record low in the overall amount of activity, the individual events could be very powerful.

In fact, the biggest solar storm on record happened in 1859, during a solar maximum about the same size as the one we're entering, according to NASA.

That storm has been dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare and was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth. During the Carrington Event, northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile.

The flares were so powerful that "people in the NorthEastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora," Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said at a geophysics meeting last December.

In addition, the geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment—some bad enough to set fires, said Ed Cliver, a space physicist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1859, such reports were mostly curiosities. But if something similar happened today, the world's high-tech infrastructure could grind to a halt.

"What's at stake," the Space Weather Prediction Center's Bogdan said, "are the advanced technologies that underlie virtually every aspect of our lives."

Solar Flare Would Rupture Earth's "Cyber Cocoon"

To begin with, the University of Colorado's Baker said, electrical disturbances as strong as those that took down telegraph machines—"the Internet of the era"—would be far more disruptive. (See "The Sun—Living With a Stormy Star" in National Geographic magazine.)

Flashback to Media Network coverage at the height of the solar activity end of the 1990's. I hosted this communications magazine on the Dutch external service and we carried a solar report every week. But we also did regular features about solar research. Here are a couple of examples.

See what I mean?

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