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Coronal mass ejection, 2012
Coronal mass ejection, 2012Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Solar storms could end up killing the internet sooner than we think

The sun is approaching a period of intense activity sooner than expected – is the ‘internet apocalypse’ nigh?

Having a star in relatively close proximity to Earth (AKA the sun) has its upsides, like providing the main source of energy for every living thing on our planet. However, you might not be surprised to hear that orbiting a burning ball of hot plasma 330,000 times more massive than us also has its downsides, like the fact it will one day expand to consume the planets themselves, boiling Earth’s oceans and turning it into a ball of charred, lifeless rock. Luckily for us, we have a few billion years to go until that happens, but the sun is still capable of causing some chaos in the meantime.

If you’ve been keeping up to date with our coverage of the sun’s coronal holes, you’ll already know that our home star’s activity has been ramping up for some time (and it’s occasionally quite cute). If you haven’t, then it’s time for a quick refresher: essentially, the sun has an 11-year cycle where it increases and decreases in activity as its magnetic field flips, and the north and south poles switch places. In the middle of this cycle (known as the “solar maximum”) the sun’s magnetic field is at its weakest.

Normally, the magnetic field keeps solar storms contained, stopping plasma from escaping into space on solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs). As it approaches the solar maximum, though, it begins allowing more plasma to slip through. This is what causes an uptick in sunspots (which are actually cooler areas where matter has escaped). At worst, it can also have some disruptive effects down on Earth, as the planet is bombarded with electromagnetic radiation.

In the past, experts predicted that we would reach our next solar maximum in 2025, but now it’s looking like it could happen as early as the end of this year, as we’re already witnessing an excess amount of sunspots and solar phenomena – like the massive geomagnetic storm that caused auroras everywhere from the UK to California back in March. What’s more, say researchers, we could see even more powerful consequences than originally expected.

“Sunspots appear when strong magnetic fields poke through the surface of the sun,” Alex James, a solar physicist at University College London, tells Live Science. "By looking at those sunspots we can get an idea of how strong and complex the sun’s magnetic field is at that moment.” Right now, all the evidence points to the fact that the solar maximum will “peak earlier, and it’s going to peak higher than expected”.

Not all solar storms hit Earth, of course – only the ones that occur when that part of the sun is pointing in the direction of our planet. However, more frequent storms mean this likelihood increases, and stronger storms could mean worse effects. What kind of effects? Well, for one, solar storms create radiation spikes with unknown consequences for human beings (especially those less protected by the atmosphere, like airline passengers or the astronauts on the International Space Station). They can also disrupt the migration patterns of some birds and sea creatures that rely on magnetic fields to navigate, as if the whales didn’t already have enough on their plate.

More importantly, though, severe solar storms could also kill internet services, interrupting your endless scroll of Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and back again. This is because the radiation ionises atoms in the upper atmosphere, blocking radio signals for up to half the planet at a time. An ionised atmosphere is also denser, and the extra force this exerts on Earth-orbiting satellites can cause them to crash or spin out of orbit – in fact, a geomagnetic storm already caused 38 of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites to plummet back to Earth in 2022. Obviously, losing access to social media isn’t actually the worst that can happen, in this case. If paired with a natural disaster, or damage to critical infrastructure (also a potential effect of solar storms), a lengthy blackout could be disastrous.

How likely is such an “internet apocalypse”? According to a 2021 study, there’s up to a 12 per cent chance of extreme space weather events that directly impact Earth occurring every solar cycle. While the largest on record occurred in 1859 and 1921, the effects would now be amplified by our increasing reliance on interconnected electronic systems to live our daily lives. Acknowledging this risk, NASA launched a space probe named the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) in 2018, with the mission of “touching” the sun. Recently, it was able to successfully navigate through a stream of solar wind for the first time, and managed to gather vital information about solar storms.

“Understanding the mechanism behind the sun’s wind is important for practical reasons,” says Stuart D. Bale, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied the PSP’s findings. “That’s going to affect our ability to understand how the sun releases energy and drives geomagnetic storms – which are a threat to our communication networks.” Hopefully, more information will also help us to prepare for the worst solar storms the sun has to throw at us, and minimise the damage they might cause.

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