Podcast - Ep 54: Are we headed for an internet apocalypse?


Peter Becker, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in George Mason University’s College of Science, talks with Mason President Gregory Washington about how a predicted major increase in solar storm activity could be a prelude to an “internet apocalypse.” Can we prepare? What could be the consequences? What are the economic implications? A $14 million federal study Becker is leading with the Navy could provide better predictive capabilities and help us better understand exactly what’s at stake. 

Dr. Peter Becker wears headphones and speaks into the microphone during Access to Excellence podcast recording

Professor Peter Becker joins Mason president Gregory Washington in the studio to discuss how an increase in solar storms could be a prelude to an “internet apocalypse” on this episode of the Acess to Excellence podcast.

Photo credit:
Photo credit
Cristian Torres/George Mason University

   A very large event could take the internet out for as long as a month, and there’s additional damage to the power grid, too. So if you lose the internet, the economic damage in the U.S. alone is considered to be on the order of about $10 billion per day. And so if that escalates, you pretty rapidly run into an economic disruption that’s larger than COVID, let’s say, as an example."

Read the Transcript

Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers in research, innovators in technology and those who simply have a good story. All make up the fabric that is George Mason University, where taking on the grand challenges that face our students, graduates and higher education is our mission and our passion. Hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington, this is the Access to Excellence podcast.

Gregory Washington (00:26):

A team of George Mason University scientists has received an almost $14 million federal grant to work with the Department of the Navy to study and better understand increased solar activity that could potentially ‘cause what is being called an internet apocalypse. Such an event would disrupt all of Earth's communications, including satellite communications. My guest, Peter Becker, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Mason's College of Science, is the principal investigator of the research. Dr. Becker has a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Colorado, and his research focuses on topics in high energy astrophysical theory. His model for studying accretion flows onto rotating neutron stars has become the standard for researchers studying these extreme objects. Now though, he's part of an effort to protect the earth from the effects of what many predict will be an increase in solar storms and their potential consequences. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Becker (01:40):

Thank you so much, President Washington. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Gregory Washington (01:44):

Well, look, this is, uh, quite a scary topic and depending on how you look at it, but this is one that we need to talk about. Yeah, look, if you go on your Facebook page, your cover photo though is not a picture of stars or a planet of solar flares disrupting the, our communication system and burning up satellites, but it's of you playing a guitar in a band at a local bar. Now, is that your rock and roll alter ego?

Peter Becker (02:10):

Yeah, that's basically the, I just hit the nail on the head there. Yeah. My other passion in my life is my music, my music hobby. But science is the primary focus. I, I did figure out early in life that I didn't want to be a full-time musician. I realized I was born to be a scientist. I've never second-guessed that decision because my scientific career has been the source of really all the inspiration and motivation and my main creative output in my life. So, uh, the music thing is a lot of fun as a release. It's, it's a little bit, sort of more of an emotional thing, I guess, versus the very sort of clinical quantitative work that I do as a scientist. So it's a, it creates a nice balance in my life.

Gregory Washington (02:48):

Oh, that's outstanding. So from the photos, you seem pretty proud of your two Les Paul guitars. What's so special about 'em?

Peter Becker (02:58):

Right. Well, if you play a lot and if you play on stage, you tend to get connected to certain instruments. So it's actually a little bit of a Covid story there because I used to play a Fender Stratocaster mainly on stage, but I had about 30 years on that particular instrument, and the frets were worn out, so I needed to have it re fretted. Well, I gave it to a luthier over in Manassas and it disappeared for a couple years because of Covid <laugh>. So I had no choice but to, to bring up My Les Pauls. And then with those on stage, it's just a different sort of experience. They're a little more solid, a little meatier you might say. And then it was tough to go back to the Stratocaster after that. So I started sort of collecting Les Pauls a little bit. I don't have too many, I have about four, I guess. Nice. But the ones that you saw are my favorites. Uh, there's a Sunburst and then there's a, a Blueberry Burst it's called. And those are dialed in quite nicely now. So those are my main instruments on stage at the moment.

Gregory Washington (03:48):

<laugh>, that, that is really, really interesting because you have this phenomenal career in astrophysics, and yet you have this strong, strong connection to music. So what got you started in music and then what got you started in astrophysics?

Peter Becker (04:03):

Okay, yeah, those are interesting questions. So I guess music would be my sister's record collection, I guess, which I wasn't really into that much when I was a young teen. And she would be playing certain things that were great, like, uh, Elton John and, uh, the Beatles and Cat Stevens and some other stuff. But I actually wasn't really into it at the time, but it's a funny thing 'cause it sinks in kind of subliminally. And then when I was an older teenager, I got really into her record collection and started listening to the radio. And I was a teenager in the seventies. So they're all, all these great bands that were doing some amazing stuff called Progressive Rock at the time. So bands like Boston and, uh, rush and even Pink Floyd, you could put in that group. And REO Speedwagon, they had virtuoso guitar players.

Peter Becker (04:45):

And when I heard that guitar screaming at me through the speakers, as they say the old cliche, it spoke to me and I got very interested in that. So I was an undergraduate in college at the time, but as I said, I, I knew early on that I wanted to be a scientist because I was also into the original Star Trek shows and Mr. Spock and all that good stuff. And the Apollo program, I was nine years old when the lunar landing occurred. So that had a huge impact on me, and that was stronger actually than music. And so I got interested in astronomy. And then when I was a freshman in high school, I actually wasn't doing too well because I hadn't discovered astronomy yet. I remember halfway through my freshman year, I suddenly just got interested in astronomy. My mother had been, of course, bugging me to do my homework and this and that.

Peter Becker (05:27):

And I told her I made a deal with her. Tell you what, just stop bugging me and I'll make sure I get all my homework done on time. And that was the deal we had. And it was a win-win situation for both of us. And I excelled after that and graduated, did quite well in high school and college and ended up going to graduate school in Boulder, Colorado, which was fantastic for five years. And then I've been here at Mason since ‘92 and couldn't be happier. Didn't really expect to spend my whole career here, but I've been here over, over 30 years now. And I've loved it, been treated very well here and it's been a wonderful environment for me to keep doing my science and working with my graduate students.

Gregory Washington (06:02):

Oh, it's outstanding. So this, so-called Internet Apocalypse. Is that just a marketing slogan to get people's attention? Or are we really talking about, you know, I, in preparation for this, I tried to ask myself the fundamental question, what would life be like? What would we lose if for whatever reason we'd lost the internet?

Peter Becker (06:25):

So, yeah, it is a thing. It's not just type, it's a real concern. And it's basically because of course the internet is growing and the internet share of the world economy is growing. It's like pushing 20% and at the same time the sun is ramping up its activity in a way that hasn't occurred in the last 20 years or so, in other words, since before the internet. So the concern is that solar flare is an event where there's a huge explosion on the sun. And we can tell that because we see a huge flash of light. And that flash of light is kind of like the muzzle flash, and then there's gas that is ejected from the sun, that's called a Coronal Mass Ejection or CME. And that basically can go in a random direction in space. But when it comes towards Earth, then all these particles can arrive at Earth and do things to our magnetic field.

Peter Becker (07:12):

And we can actually tell what's going to happen when we see that first flash of light. Because if it forms a halo around the sun, that's a signature that we're basically looking down the barrel of this cannon. The flare is the muzzle flash, and then the bullet is the CME, the Coronal Mass Ejection. And if it comes towards earth, we see that halo. And we have about 18 to 36 hours of warning. Now, this has happened many, many times before, and I can talk about a couple of specific examples, but we haven't had a severe solar storm and a large CME strike Earth's magnetic field directly since pretty much before the internet era. So the internet is not really built to have a robust enough infrastructure to actually survive that kind of disruption. And we can talk about exactly what I mean by the disruption and how it happens. So, you know, it's like anything else that it was built as strong as it needed to be built based on the economic bottom line at the time. And so it's not engineered at the level that you're required to handle severe disruption. The power grid is somewhat in the same boat, but it's a little bit more robust.

Gregory Washington (08:15):

Oh, man.

Peter Becker (08:15):

But, uh, if we talk about DOD communications, the original intranet was called the ARPANET. And that's actually relatively hardened, could, might even survive. But the way I look at it is if you build the internet harder, it's sort of an insurance policy against a large disruptive event, which may or may not happen. And some people buy insurance and some people don't buy insurance. And if you buy it, it can be expensive, but you're protected. And if you don't buy it, you're vulnerable. And the way it is right now is the internet really doesn't have that insurance policy behind it 'cause it wasn't engineered up to that kind of a level of hardness to be able to handle this kind of disruption.

Gregory Washington (08:50):

So just for our audience, and let me make sure I get this right. Solar storms will become much more active over the next 10 years, is what you're predicting. And you even said that the peak time will be <laugh> between 2024 and 2028. Oh boy. And during that time, the entire internet could conceivably be knocked out for a period of weeks to months in the event of an extreme solar flare. Is that right?

Peter Becker (09:21):

Right. So I could sketch that out for you if you like.

Gregory Washington (09:23):

Yeah, please do.

Peter Becker (09:24):

Okay, so let's look at a historical precedent. So the last large flare in CME that directly struck Earth with this event called the Carrington event, which was in 1859. And that was actually recorded and reported by an astronomer in England named Richard Carrington. And he noticed a tremendous brightening of the sun. He could actually see with his eyes. And he went outside and it was, the sun itself had actually gotten brighter. They didn't know about CMEs back in those days in 1859, but about a week or so later, there was a tremendous disruption of the telegraph system. So the telegraph system was the internet back then, right? And we had all kinds of currents running up and down the cables, the telegraph wires, and there were reports that some operators may have even been electrocuted from touching the equipment. And the whole system was brought down for weeks to months.

Peter Becker (10:14):

So as I said, that was, that was the internet back in 1859. And if you think about a telegraph system, it's got pretty robust wires. It's kind of like the home wiring for a lamp or something like that. It's pretty large gauge wiring. And it was taken out. And then if you think about modern electronics, we have hair-width circuits, wires running all over the place, and optical fibers and things much, much more delicate. So in an event of that magnitude happened now, it would cause a lot of circuits to actually get fried. If you think about all the, uh, utility closets, the relay rooms and the, the office buildings and on campus here, there's mysterious closets all over the place that are chock full of electronic equipment that's extremely vulnerable to this type of interference. So if you have a large enough event, you're talking about hardware actually getting fried and people having to go out into the field to make hardware replacements.

Peter Becker (11:03):

And that's going to take a long time if it's widespread enough. So a very large event could actually take the internet out for as long as a month. And there's additional damage to the power grid, too, that we're not really focusing on today. But that's part of this as well. So if you lose the internet, the economic damage in the U.S. alone is considered to be on the order about $10 billion per day. And so if that escalates, you know, you pretty rapidly run into an economic disruption that's larger than Covid, let's say, as an example. Now the 1859 event isn't even the largest that we're aware of. There's evidence of much larger events in the distant past, which are scarier because if you have an even larger event, you're talking about a larger amount of disruption and longer time to make repairs. But there was an event about 14,000 years ago that was probably about a hundred times stronger than this Carrington event I was just referring to.

Peter Becker (11:55):

Now 14,000 years ago, humans were around on the planet, but there's no recorded history from that time. So the way that we know about it is actually from evidence in tree rings and ice cores. And this is actually kind of interesting 'cause you've probably heard about how Carbon-14 is used to date things that were alive to determine when they were alive. Things like that. So the way that Carbon-14 actually gets formed is it's actually produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays and also particles from the sun strike nitrogen atoms up there and convert them into carbon atoms, which are radioactive Carbon-14 atoms. And this happens all the time. So we're in a bath of radioactive Carbon-14 in the atmosphere, constantly filtering down. It's not dangerous, but it gets absorbed by living things and metabolized into their bodies.

Peter Becker (12:40):

And then when they die, they stop metabolizing it. So a clock starts running and you can tell from how long it takes the Carbon-14 to naturally decay, which is a few thousand years, you can tell how old that sample is, right? It's, so what happened at 14,000 years ago was there was a tremendous increase in the production, a big spike in the production of this radioactive Carbon-14 in the upper atmosphere, which filtered down and was absorbed in all sorts of living things, including these trees that were discovered in France that actually fossilized trees, which have ancient tree rings that show a big spike in Carbon-14. So this amazing indirect evidence was used to deduce that there was a huge solar flare at that time and a huge CME that did strike Earth. And we also see evidence for this enhancement in ice cores from Greenland that correlate with the same time.

Peter Becker (13:27):

So it turns out that events that large, once we found out about that one, we started looking through the geological record. And it turns out they seem to have it about every thousand years or so. So we're overdue for one <laugh>. It's been about a thousand years since the last one that's kind of comparable to the one I was just speaking about occurred. And it's also been about 150 years since the Carrington event occurred. And that one's estimated to occur every hundred years roughly. So if you think about it, we're on the clock here, and if you just look at the probability of things happening, we're in a sweet spot right now for something large to happen for some large event.

Gregory Washington (14:02):

No, I hear you. But, but you know, you, you, you become, in terms of your analysis, you highlight 2024 to 2028. Why those particular years? Is it because we're just close to that time period now? Or is there something in the mathematical or physical record that points you to that, you know, that time period?

Peter Becker (14:25):

That's a good question. So if you look at the cycles of solar activity, we haven't talked about that, but the sun goes through about a 20 year cycle where its magnetic poles can reverse. And that cycle's also associated with the increase in decrease in sunspot number. And when you have a lot of sun spots, you get a lot of flares and CMEs, because the sunspots are the points where the magnetic field comes out and forms loops, which can sometimes burst releasing particles into space. So we're just entering a period of enhanced solar activity, which is called Solar Cycle 25 right now. And it's the sun, of course, that's had millions of solar cycles, but we've only been keeping track o over a period of 25 of these cycles that we call it Solar Cycle 25. But then on top of that, there's also a longer-term cycle in the sun called the Gleissberg cycle.

Peter Becker (15:13):

That's about a hundred-year cycle of overall increase in decrease. So you have another way of sitting on top of these 20 year bumps. You have a general increase that's happening right now on a hundred-year cycle, and that's lined up roughly with the time period that we're talking about 2024, 2025 through 2028. So the concern is that there's definitely an increased risk of a very large CME launching towards Earth. Now, you know, again, they're basically gonna go in random directions in space, but as a small chance they're gonna head towards Earth. But that's already been included in the statistics <laugh>. So we're basically due for something large heading in our direction, unless we get very lucky and we have gotten lucky, um, for quite a long time.

Gregory Washington (15:56):

And that's the whole planet, right? I presume given the distances travel in the way in which these waves will expand, it's not like part of the planet will be affected and another part will not. Is that accurate?

Peter Becker (16:12):

That's exactly right. Yeah. So, so just say a little bit more about what actually happens physically. So we have this, we have the flare, as I mentioned, and if we see a halo, we know the CMEs coming towards Earth, it'll take 18 to 36 hours to get here. And then when the particles get here, it's not like they're gonna sweep down to the surface of the earth and incinerate life as we know it. The magnetic field will protect us. But what happens is the magnetic field sort of gets hit by a hammer of these particles and that causes waves to move through Earth’s magnetic field. And physicists know that when you have a changing magnetic field, it actually gives rise to changing electric field. And an electric field can accelerate charged particles because as you know, electrons are gonna flow from the negative to positive terminal on a battery, for example.

Gregory Washington (16:55):

And that's how you fry circuits.

Peter Becker (16:57):

Exactly. You get that current going. And then there's a kind of a little bit of an insidious thing that people don't necessarily think about, but you could actually also get currents induced in the surface of the earth itself. So if you think, oh, my computer's grounded, let's say, well, grounding actually can bite you in a case like this 'cause you can get currents actually coming up through the ground that are induced by these magnetic waves I'm talking about. But there is a way to deal with it. First of all, again, we have warning, if we see the flash, we have 18 to 36 hours of warning <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (17:28):

Okay, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Okay, let's talk about that. It's America, <laugh>, there's a warning goes out. Okay, in 18 to 36 hours, highly likely your electronics are gonna be fried. Things are just not going to work.

Peter Becker (17:44):

You basically start unplugging stuff

Gregory Washington (17:46):

Because the reality is we have very little control over what the sun does.

Peter Becker (17:51):

<laugh> Like, like none <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (17:53):

So the real research is a) giving us predictive capability, right? So that's more in alignment of the physics side of it, right? You're looking at it being able to predict these, understanding the magnitude of what's going to hit us from the perspective of fields, right?

Peter Becker (18:16):

Yep, exactly.

Gregory Washington (18:17):

Quantifying that.

Peter Becker (18:19):

That's exactly right. So as you said, we, we can't control the sun. The sun's gonna do whatever it wants to do at any time. So for us, it's all about two things, predictive capability. The earlier warning, the better every hour of warning you have is gold because you could maybe put another satellite in a safe mode or disconnect another transformer from the power grid. So you can save millions and millions of dollars if you have more warning. So our research is about trying to amplify that time period, trying to extend that time period so that we can make predictions over a longer timeframe, uh, which I can talk about some more. That's actually the whole basis for the research program that I'm, I'm PI on that you mentioned.

Gregory Washington (18:58):

Yeah. When, but that's one thing. It's a second piece here. What you do, what kinds of things should people do in order to function? What kinds of things could we do now, right? What's the mitigating strategies that you put in place so that we can actually continue some semblance of operations until you get all of the stuff right? Because what'll happen is it'll go down for a period of time, right? But you'll bring systems back online slowly. And then it'll take a period of time, but we'll start to function again, right?

Peter Becker (19:32):

Right. The actual timescale for the event itself would be, again, about 24 to 48 hours. That's how much time the matter be hanging around Earth causing problems. Then it would slip past Earth and go into the outer solar system. So we get hit by that hammer for 24 to 48 hours. But after that, you can start using radio equipment again, for example, as long as it's not damaged.

Gregory Washington (19:51):

As long as it's not damaged,

Peter Becker (19:52):

As long as it's not damaged.

Gregory Washington (19:52):

But most of it will be damaged.

Peter Becker (19:54):

Well, not necessarily because if it's unplugged, if it's just sitting there, it won't necessarily be fried. But this does depend on the magnitude of the event that we're talking about. Right? It does, there's mitigation measures there too. Actually, if you shroud electronic equipment in metal, like if you wrap a phone in aluminum foil, that's actually not crackpot that actually would work. It creates what we call a Faraday cage, which runs currents around, so fields don't penetrate that electronic device. So you can do things like that to protect your electronic equipment, small items, but once the plasma passes by, the interference will die down and we'll actually be able to use radios again.

Gregory Washington (20:33):

Okay. So then that's the strategy, right? How do you structure yourself such that you can create a Faraday cage around as much of the stuff that you want to protect as possible? Right? Faraday cages aren't hard to build. I've been in buildings <laugh> that are essentially Faraday cages, right?

Peter Becker (20:51):

Yep. A lot of secure places that

Gregory Washington (20:53):

Yeah, a lot of secure places. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. And so maybe that is part of a, in the 18 to 24 hours or 36 hours that you have, gonna have a hard time building those kind of things. So if you had a mechanism in place where you can protect as much as possible, that would allow you to get back and get up and going quickly.

Pete Becker (21:15):

That's right. Yeah. And as, like I was discussing the kind of analogy of an insurance policy before. So I think what's gonna happen is that there's going to have to be a moderate scale event to really get people's attention, and not just in terms of individuals protecting their devices, but in terms of society, doing things like maybe shielding hospitals and places like that where we don't want electronic equipment to malfunction because it's life sustaining equipment. Or maybe parts of the network are gonna have to be shielded better. But that kind of investment probably isn't gonna happen until there's a moderate scale event. So my hope is it's not a massive event that causes a huge problem, but just a large enough event to get society's attention and make them realize that we're entering sort of deeper water in terms of the solar activity, and we need to invest in hardening certain aspects of the infrastructure.

Gregory Washington (22:05):

Now let me ask you this. Who's listening to you? I know you got research from that's fund, looks like it's funded from the Navy, and so maybe they're listening, although interestingly enough, if they're out to sea, they might be at the safest position of all <laugh> <laugh>. They're not grounded to anything <laugh>. But, but who's listening?

Peter Becker (22:27):

DOD is certainly paying a lot of attention to this. So this is, this is a, the $14 million grant that the Navy's providing because they're very concerned about maintaining communications. There's some connections with concerns about an electromagnetic pulse that could be associated with a nuclear detonation. So there's, there's a little bit of a crossover there in terms of maintaining communications across the board in terms of any kind of electromagnetic disruption that could take place. But the Navy's particularly concerned about the sun because of the potential. The sun is such a huge dominant object in the solar system. We really need to understand it better than we do right now for lots of different reasons. I mean, there's, there's even issues with possible changes in the level of solar output that could change climate on earth, for example. There's historical evidence that that's happened. So it all comes under the umbrella of security, at least in the United States. When the Department of Defense is looking at a lot more than just rockets and missiles and defense systems.

Peter Becker (23:21):

They're actually thinking about all aspects of national security, which includes a lot of fundamental science research of this type. So the Navy's very interested in some, and Mason students are involved in doing simulations with the sun. We're running advanced simulations to try to connect subtle changes in the sun's behavior with the possibility that we're seeing the onset of a large event that might not happen for a while, for weeks, let's say. That would be a tremendous amount of additional early warning that we would have. So we're interested in doing that. We're also heavily involved in sun observation. We're helping to run a satellite system called Stereo, which is actually two satellites in orbit around the same distance from the sun that the Earth is. But they're on the other side of the sun, giving us sort of an early warning system on the backside of the sun.

Peter Becker (24:11):

The sun rotates in about 30 days. So if a flare is developing on the backside, in a week or so, it could be on the front side and could actually burst, shoot that cannon a matter towards Earth. So being able to see the far side of the sun gives us a much more comprehensive capability to this kind of early warning. So we're involved in data acquisition and analysis from Stereo and other satellites, and also running enhanced sophisticated simulation codes to try to improve our predictive capability of what's gonna happen in the atmosphere of the sun.

Gregory Washington (24:43):

Okay, so for those folk who may not know, explain the concept of a solar storm and solar flares.

Peter Becker (24:50):

Sure. So, well, we know the earth has a magnetic field, for example, right? And we have a magnetic north pole magnetic south pole. And the north magnetic pole is pretty close to the geographical north pole, which is where the Earth’s spin axis comes through. The sun is very similar, but the field is much stronger, and the field actually pervades the whole sun down to the core where the nuclear reactions are taking place in the sun. So the magnetic field really controls a lot of the dynamics in the sun. It controls how the matter boils on the surface of the sun, where we see convection, hot matter coming up and cold matter going down. And we also see the magnetic field sticking out of the sun into space. And so I mentioned sun spots before. They always come in a pair, north and south polarity, sunspots, and there's magnetic field that connects those two.

Peter Becker (25:39):

And that magnetic field helps to confine some of this hot matter that's boiling up on the surface of the sun. But when the pressure becomes too much, the magnetic field can't necessarily hold it anymore. And it goes through what's called a reconnection event. And that loop kind of, uh, severs itself. And then you get a closed loop that goes off into space and a smaller loop that's still connecting the two sunspots on the sun. So that's how we're generating all this high temperature, high energy matter. So it's interesting to note that in some cases, these extreme solar flares and explosions could even produce gamma rays, which are the highest energy form of radiation that we can observe in the universe. And what's surprising about that is that if you look at the temperature of the surface of the sun, it's about 6,000 Kelvins. And that's basically yellow hot.

Peter Becker (26:28):

If you have a yellow hot match head or something like that, it actually has a temperature of about 6,000 Kelvins, like the surface of the sun. But that's way too cold to produce gamma rays. So the fact that we see gamma rays sometimes indicates that there's particles that are actually being accelerated by strong fields. Getting back to what you were saying before, strong electric fields are accelerating electrons and protons to such high energies that we can produce these gamma rays. And that's actually my personal area of research where my research intersects with the solar physics is in trying to understand how those particles are accelerated during these flares to such high energies that they can even produce gamma rays. So we have a model for that. It's an interesting challenge because the particles that get accelerated don't come from nowhere. They're actually members of the population particles on the surface of the sun every day, protons and electrons and things.

Peter Becker (27:20):

So how do they get up to such high energies? They, they sort of start as members of this thermal population of 6,000 Kelvins or so, but then they end up with such a high energy, they're basically what we call relativistic particles, which means that their kinetic energy of motion is equal to or larger than their rest mass energy, which is what you get from Einstein's famous formula E=mc(squared). That's the rest mass energy. But when these particles, uh, get to what we call relativistic energies or speeds very close to the speed of light, their kinetic energy is actually even greater than that rest mass energy. And that's how they can produce this higher energy gamma radiation. So that's a puzzle that we're helping to contribute to the solution of working with my students at Mason. That's, as I said, one component of this larger solar physics research projects that's going on.

Gregory Washington (28:08):

That is interesting. Why are we not hearing a lot about this in a mainstream media? Do you think people just say, this is just too science fiction for us? Or it's, I got bigger fish to fry or, or worry about right now and to worry about something that I don't know when it's gonna happen?

Peter Becker (28:26):

Yeah. Well, I mean, it's true that your average person is not gonna worry about a solar flare because they have much more bread and butter kitchen table issues to deal with on a daily basis. But on the other hand, the, the profile of the possible internet apocalypse is definitely going up in the media. I, I've actually been doing a whole bunch of interviews <laugh> over the last couple of weeks on the subject. And, and it is in the popular press. There's an article in the Washington Post just a few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal's done a series. Forbes has done a series.

Gregory Washington (29:00):

What was the catalyst? What prompted people to start paying attention.

Peter Becker (29:03):

It's really the idea that we're seeing a, an increase in solar activity, which is documented. And we also are seeing a large cross section for disruption of global commerce. So I think it has caught the attention of certain people, and that's filtering into the mainstream media. And I think this is probably gonna get amplified over time, because as the activity increases, we're going to see reports of, for example, much more extensive Northern Lights phenomenon, which we just saw a week or two ago. As a matter of fact, two medium-sized CMEs actually did reach Earth just about 10 days ago and created very spectacular aurora, uh, a couple of weekends ago that were noted in the popular media. But that's, again, kind of the tip of the iceberg. We may see more of that, but then that's going to transition into blackouts here and there, not necessarily major blackouts, but significant ones.

Peter Becker (29:59):

The last time we saw a really major blackout was, I think in the late nineties, the whole province of Quebec, Canada lost power for about 24 hours. So, you know, events like that are going to start to become more common and it's going to get people's attention and hopefully will cause us to reconsider what we need to do in order to harden the infrastructure. Because, again, we can't control the events themselves. The sun's gonna do whatever it needs to do. And the sun's been around for billions of years and, and you know, our modern industrial economy's only been around for a couple hundred years, so it's completely meaningless amount of time compared to the lifetime of the sun. So if the sun is entering a phase where its activity is gonna change, we just have to deal with that. And if that may be something that has never occurred before in human history, because we haven't been around that long, but we are living with a star and 93 million miles away, as you said.

Peter Becker (30:49):

So for the most part, it's extremely beneficial. It's given us life on earth and all the wonderful things, the photosynthesis and the warmth and the liquid water that we have at, in this Goldilocks zone where we are 93 million miles from the sun. But there can also be an alter ego there. And the sun is definitely capable of unleashing tremendous firestorms or particles that can have very serious consequences on Earth. Again, I mean, there's even worries about events that could be even a thousand times larger than the Carrington event in 1859. Very unlikely to occur, much like large earthquakes. These large solar disruptions are impossible to predict. But we know that the large ones are very infrequent and very widely spaced. But if you get a large enough event, then you're talking about much more severe disruption that's difficult to really extrapolate from anything that we've seen before in human history.

Gregory Washington (31:41):

So let's talk about that for one second. So that storm that you just highlighted, the one that was significantly more potent and substantial than the Carrington event, my understanding is that occurred about 14,300 years ago, something around that time period, right?

Peter Becker (31:56):

That's the one I was talking about. Yes.

Gregory Washington (31:59):

And so the thought is the research is that there've been nine such extreme solar events. One every 1200 some-odd years. I'm trying to get you to handicap this for me so, so I can place internet bets, so that when it happens, you can't collect your money, right? <laugh>,

Peter Becker (32:18):

There you go. Always scheming. Money for Mason.

Gregory Washington (32:22):

Exactly. You know,

Peter Becker (32:24):

The ultimate donor. But anyway, well, it's difficult to put a precise number. I would say that for an event as large as this one from 14,000 years ago, it's probably more like a, it's probably more like a percent per hundred years for an event that large. But if you go back to the Carrington event, then you're talking definitely about a percent per year for an event that large. Because that's gotta scale about a hundred years. So it's about a percent per year of chance overall. It's probably only a 10th of a percent or so of this 14,000 year ago event.

Gregory Washington (32:56):

Well then that means we're long overdue.

Peter Becker (32:58):

Yes. That's exactly the concern that the sun is entering, again, not only solar cycle 25, but also this Gleissberg cycle, which is a hundred-year cycle. It's beefing up to a level pretty similar to what it was back in the Carrington time, because that was 150 years ago. So the Gleissberg cycle would've been more active at that time too.

Gregory Washington (33:18):

So there is a cycle that actually is prompting this. There is a precursor events that are happening that really give you alarm. Is that right?

Peter Becker (33:28):

Yeah, that's a great analogy. Because it's much like earthquakes again, where you can see some precursors, small earthquakes. And in fact, we're just seeing this right now in Iceland where they're super concerned because they're having like a thousand earthquakes in 24 hours, if you can imagine, right? And they're evacuating villages because that definitely could indicate that there's a large eruption coming. And yes, there's that kind of correlation of solar activity as well. But having said that, nobody's running around ringing alarm bells yet. It's not as if we're, I mean, the analogy with what's happening in Iceland breaks down because we're not seeing that level of activity yet with in the sun, where we're really anticipating a huge event, you know, next week or in the next month. But there is a trend in that direction. And at a certain point in a year or so, it's a possibility that alarm bells will be ringing and we'll actually be much more worried about this. So the level of consciousness is definitely going up. And again, it's also because of the vulnerability of economically of the world. It's not just communication and sending email, it's global e-commerce that's sort of pushing a 20% level now. If you disrupt that communication, it's a lot more than just email. It's basically gonna bring the world economy almost grinding to a halt, except for local economies that can go on in the absence of communication. So, yeah. It's, it's a worry.

Gregory Washington (34:46):

It is a worry. So it seems like there should be some development of backup systems and backup processes to help some functions continue.

Peter Becker (34:58):

For one thing, it's a good idea to shield data centers. We were talking about shielding before. It's a good idea to shield data centers and also to have redundant backup data centers. You know, we have these things on computers called RAIDS systems. R-A-I-D-S with multiple hard drives that clone off each other and have backups. So if you lose one hard drive, you don't lose your whole data archive, right?

Gregory Washington (35:18):

Exactly right.

Peter Becker (35:19):

We kind of need to do that with larger data centers too, because the effects of these storms can be localized. So you might lose one in the U.S. but another one in Australia, let's say, could survive. And the loss of data itself is of course a big deal. Data is value these days. Data is money. So if data's literally lost, that's just as bad as losing real time communication.

Gregory Washington (35:40):

Oh yeah. Without question. Without question. So where's the playbook? Who's put that together? So you, you've highlighted a number of strategies. Is somebody putting that framework together? It's almost like an insurance policy we're talking about when, not if. And we're probably talking about our lifetime.

Peter Becker (36:00):

Yeah, I think that's probably true. And so, I mean, the U.S. government and DOD are definitely working on mitigation strategies for their own equipment and their own satellites. And the large communications companies are working on mitigation strategies for their networks and their communication satellites. My concern is mostly with the healthcare system because I do feel that there's a lot of vulnerability there and civilian infrastructure associated with healthcare, keeping people alive, which often relies on data transmission as well as maintaining power. So I think there's a sort of a soft spot there. It's not clear to me that there's any government entity that's looking at that particular aspect of this problem.

Gregory Washington (36:36):

I see. I see. You know, we had another astrophysicist on, Hakeem Oluseyi, who has also taught here at Mason, and he talked a lot about space exploration. If there is an event like this, what does it do for space exploration? Does it make people a little more concerned?

Peter Becker (36:54):

Yeah, that's a good question. So space exploration, the ramifications of all the solar activity kind of depends on your altitude off of Earth. So we have the space station in, so-called low Earth orbit about 300 miles above the surface of the Earth. That's low enough that it's somewhat protected by Earth’s magnetic field. But you wouldn't wanna leave astronauts up there if you knew that a huge CME was coming by because they would definitely receive harmful amounts of radiation. But they have a Soyuz capsule hanging around up there, which is sort of their lifeboat. And you do have 18 to 36 hours of warning. So you could bail out and you could get back to the relative safety of Earth. And again, Earth's fields are gonna protect you from the particles directly. You'll only have to deal with the secondary effects of the magnetic waves and electric currents, but you're not gonna actually get fried by the particles.

Peter Becker (37:41):

In orbit’s another story. Now, if you go farther out into space and you're talking about a lunar colony, well, on the surface of the Moon, you're totally vulnerable 'cause there's no magnetic field protection at all. The Moon has no magnetic field and it's outside Earth's magnetic field. So the idea would be to build underground shelters on the Moon. And I actually, I just read an article a few months ago about how they found a likely spot where there's apparently a cave on the Moon that they may land near. Because if it's already dug out as a cave, you can go in there; hopefully, there's no weird lunar creatures or anything <laugh> waiting for you. <laugh>. You can go first, right?

Gregory Washington (38:16):

<laugh>, Hey, no worries, <laugh>.

Peter Becker (38:18):

But that would actually provide natural shelter from harmful particles that we're talking about. Now, when you go and you start talking about Mars exploration, that's when things get really dicey because it takes years to get to Mars and you're in deep space, way outside Earth’s magnetic field. You can't lead shield a spacecraft like that because if you use lead, you're not gonna get it off the ground. It's not gonna launch. So you've gotta find another way to protect astronauts on the way to Mars. Once they get there again, they would probably dig underground shelters.

Gregory Washington (38:50):

And they might actually be better off than earth, right? Because it'll hit Earth first and then, right?

Peter Becker (38:55):

Yeah. And, and for that matter, it might hit Earth and not hit these astronauts on the way to Mars because the path you take to Mars would actually be a curved path through space. So a CME that hits Earth, you might actually be outta the line of fire if you're floating around in space. But the worry is that you wouldn't be, and then that's a big concern as to how we would actually protect astronauts. They'd have a certain amount of maneuvering capability. But the problem is, is the cloud of gas we're talking about is so large, you couldn't actually manually reorient a spacecraft in a direction that would get you out of that, because then you're not gonna reach Mars at all. You're gonna end up floating around in deep space forever. So they've gotta develop ways of maybe using electromagnetic fields to create an artificial magnetic field around the spacecraft. Kind of a magnetic cocoon or something might be strong enough to do that, or other types of shielding. Again, you can't lead shield the spacecraft, but you can use layers of foil, might be effective unless you're dealing with very high energy particles like those relativistic ones I was talking about, which can actually plow through thin sheets of metal.

Gregory Washington (39:58):

So as we wrap up, over the next five years, what is your handicap on a Carrington like event happening?

Pete Becker (40:05):

I think the odds are about 50-50 because, and the reason I say that,

Gregory Washington (40:09):

Those are amazing odds.

Peter Becker (40:10):

Well, the reason I say that is because after Carrington, one might ask when was the last time there was an event that was close to that, and that was actually in 2003. And it happened to be the Halloweens solar storm of 2003, almost exactly 20 years ago. And that one was just as large an event and it almost struck Earth head on, but it was kind of a glancing blow across Earth. So we had a lot of spectacular aurora and Northern Lights and some localized power blackouts, but we weren't hit directly by that. And so that was about 20 years. So my guess is that an event like that, that directly strikes Earth isn't really that unlikely to happen in the next five to 10 years.

Gregory Washington (40:51):

Wow. That's scary.

Peter Becker (40:53):

But again, an event that large, we would definitely survive.

Gregory Washington (40:56):

We would survive as humans. The question is, what is mankind state after that period? I'm getting on another tangent here, but this is great. It's almost like you should be having conversations now with humanist. Because the real issue is not just what happens once the solar storm hits. The real issue is what happens to society afterward and how do you manage and mitigate the aftermath? Is it gonna be a month? Is it going to be two months, right? Do you remember what happened in this society when we could not get toilet paper <laugh>? Do you remember during, during the pandemic? Do you remember what ensued for something as as mundane as that?

Peter Becker (41:43):

Right. Yeah. You're absolutely right. And you kind of alluded to this earlier too, in our conversation when you're talking about radio communication, loss of communication, what could happen to society. And I think we're at an especially delicate time now because of the rise of conspiracy theories in general right now. And the kind of the breakdown of rational human thought or American thought anyway,

Gregory Washington (42:02):

Without question. The breakdown of rational thought and the breakdown of understanding and belief in science.

Peter Becker (42:08):

Yes. Yes. Right. Exactly. So if you think about it, a communications internet blackout in a context like that, again, with the country awash in more guns than there are people in this country.

Gregory Washington (42:20):

And imagine what would people do if they couldn't get ahold of their social media for a month. This will be catastrophic for some folk.

Peter Becker (42:26):

Yeah. I have to agree. We can only hope that maybe a better spirit will actually prevail if they're not able to read the conspiracy theories on social media during the blackout. Who knows? It might actually be returned to a simpler time when we spoke more directly to our neighbors and actually understood each other eye to eye.

Gregory Washington (42:45):

It would definitely put you in a more localized setting for communication and engagement.

Peter Becker (42:50):

So that could be good. Maybe. I guess that's a good way to end on a bright note at least.

Gregory Washington (42:55):

Yeah, end on a bright note, <laugh>. Well, thank you. That is going to wrap things up for our Access to Excellence. Thank you, Peter. Peter Becker is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at George Mason University's College of Science. I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe, Mason Nation.

Narrator (43:20):

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students, graduates, and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.