Massive solar storm will ‘kill’ the internet, says space expert

The movement of Earth’s magnetic poles is making solar storm-driven network damage more likely, believes a scientist. The answer is to start building shields.

Massive solar storm will ‘kill’ internet, says space expert

Not enough is being done to protect networks from solar storms that could wipe out electric power grids and destroy satellites. The end game in a catastrophic solar storm would be the internet’s time synchronization not working anymore. That would stop the internet altogether.

“An impending calamitous solar storm” is how Joseph N. Pelton, the former dean of the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, describes the perceived event in his press release.

Pelton, who is also a current executive board member of the International Association of Space Safety (IAASS), has published an article in Room: The Space Journal (subscription) on the subject.

Humanity must prepare and build “a megastructure” by creating “an artificial Van Allen electro-magnetic shield to protect Earth,” he says.

Van Allen electro-magnetic shields are natural radiation belts of energy particles held in place by gravity. Two radiation belts are pre-existing, according to Wikipedia. They extend above the surface of the Earth at 1,000 to 60,000 kilometers. Others can be temporarily created through natural space activity.

We need to build our own Van Allen electro-magnetic shield

Pelton, however, says we should build our own one, and that if we don’t, the internet won’t survive.

“A massive coronal mass ejection that brings millions of tons of ions travelling perhaps at 2 million kilometers an hour, similar to the Carrington Event of 1859, might leave the world’s economic systems and global infrastructure in shambles,” he says in the release.

The Carrington event was one of the biggest solar storms ever recorded. There was no internet then obviously, but telegraph systems failed. People, too, observed a bright light that turned night into day. “Like a luminous cloud,” a Baltimore newspaper reported it as then.

Pelton sees his structure as being “multi-functional, incorporating solar power satellites to beam back clean energy to Earth and acting as a way-station for efficient transportation to other points in the solar system such as the Moon, Mars or asteroids,” too, he says.

Pelton isn’t the first to suggest the world is complacent.

The congressional watchdog U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in May said  the grid was susceptible to electromagnetic threats, and despite some work by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), not enough was being done to harden the grid against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). EMPs can derive not only from solar geomagnetic storms, but also lightning strikes and nuclear explosions.

“A naturally occurring solar weather event could have a significant impact on the nation's electric grid,” the GAO said. “Other infrastructure sectors that depend on electricity, such as communications” would be affected, too.

Pelton concentrates his message on tangible likely results in the event of a major incident, such as a crashing internet due to time stamps getting out of whack.

“This cosmic menace could knock out the time synchronization of the global internet, which is essential for it to continue to function day in, day out,” Pelton explains.

He also says that as the Earth’s magnetic poles move, which they do—over the last 150 years, the North Pole has shifted 1,102 kilometers—that drifting affects the protection afforded by natural Van Allen shields, also called the magnetosphere. They change, too. You can’t rely on them to always be there to stop the destructive pulses getting through.

“The scenario is becoming ever more likely as Earth’s magnetic poles continue to shift, leading to a serious reduction in the radiation shielding capacity of the Van Allen belts,” Pelton says in an extract on Room’s website.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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