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This could be the ‘internet apocalypse’

Regular readers may recall that several weeks ago this column banged on about our increasing over-reliance on a number of things we appear to believe will never be subject to change or disruption and thus have neglected to ensure there’s some backup plan in place for when there’s an inevitable cockup of one sort or another.

As is often the case, the limitations imposed by the time-space continuum meant that a number of examples intended to illustrate this endemic shortsightedness didn’t end up making the cut.

The real doozy of these was what is reportedly the very real risk of what’s being dubbed an “internet apocalypse”.

It was recently announced that a team of scientists at George Mason University in the US has received a federal grant to study and better understand increased solar activity and the way it can impact systems on Earth.

The main reason for the research is that violent solar storms are expected to become more frequent and more severe over the next 10 years – indeed, they’re likely to peak next year – and high-energy outbursts from the sun can have devastating consequences 93 million miles away, here in our neck of the cosmos.

These bursts of radiation, high-speed electrons, protons, and other highly energetic particles, which are launched into space and can reach Earth in less than a day, have the potential to severely interfere with all the things that are enabled by the internet: radio transmitters, navigation and GPS, satellite operations and communications, and the electric power grid – in addition to less essential nice-to-haves like Netflix.

To quote the university’s Professor Peter Becker, “The internet has come of age during a time when the sun has been relatively quiet, and now it’s entering a more active time. It’s the first time in human history that there’s been an intersection of increased solar activity with our dependence on the internet.”

That said, it’s not the first time human technology has been given a kicking by solar flares.

The last time a coronal mass ejection from the sun reached Earth was in 1859, causing what’s known as the Carrington Event, which took out the telegraph system of the time.

And as Becker notes, the heavy-duty wires of the telegraph were robust compared to the fragile electronics of today.

“The internet was simply not designed to handle this level of communication interference, and, consequently, is considered a very ‘soft’ type of infrastructure,” Becker says.

“Hence, the period from 2024 to 2028 is a time when the entire internet could conceivably be knocked out for a period of weeks to months in the event of a really extreme solar flare.”

Becker notes such a scenario could create “an unprecedented disaster for modern society”, though one suspects he’s significantly undershooting the significance of such an event when he speculates about it “potentially triggering a worldwide recession”.

Those of us who were around to witness the panic about the potential of the Y2K bug to disrupt global computing may well wonder why this particular threat from above and beyond isn’t getting much if any airtime, at the moment.

But absent any official information or advice in the interim, one could do worse than getting hold of an almanac from a century ago, to ensure you have some reliable tips about living in a world without electronics.

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