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Four ways the Internet could go down

The Internet was designed to be robust, fault-tolerant and distributed, but its technology is still in its infancy.

The fact that the Web has not stopped functioning in its initial decades sometimes encourages us to assume that it never will. But like any system, biological or man-made, the Internet has the potential to fail.

Monday’s “DNSChanger” malware problem, which affected some 200,000 computers, was much hyped and ultimately inconsequential. But here are four maladies that really do have the potential to wipe out Internet access on a massive scale.
1. Space weather
When you think about Web surfing, you probably don’t worry about what’s happening on the surface of the sun 92 million miles away. But you should. Solar flares are one of our most serious threats for our communication systems.

Consider satellite failures. One afternoon in 1998, the Galaxy IV, a $250 million satellite floating 35,000 kilometers above the planet, suddenly spun out of control. The main suspect is a solar flare: the sun was acting up at that time, and several other satellites (owned by Germany, Japan, NASA and Motorola) all failed at the same moment.

The effects were instant and worldwide. Eighty percent of pagers instantly went down. Physicians, managers and drug dealers all across the United States looked down and realized they were no longer receiving pages. NPR, CBS, Direct PC Internet and dozens of other services went down. It is estimated that in recent years at least 12 satellites have been lost due to the effects of space weather.

But it’s not just satellites that we have to worry about. When a massive solar flare erupts on the sun, it can cause geomagnetic storms on the Earth. The largest solar eruption recorded so far was in 1859. Known as the Carrington flare, it sent telegraph wires across Europe and America into a sparking frenzy.

Since that time, the technology blanketing the planet has changed quite a bit. If we were to get another solar flare of that size now, what would happen? The answer is clear to space physicists and electrical engineers: it would blow out transformers and melt down our computer systems. In a small disruption in 1989, an electromagnetic storm arrested power throughout most of Quebec and halted the Toronto stock market for three hours.

A major solar event could theoretically melt down the whole Internet. What earthquakes, bombs, and terrorism cannot do might be accomplished in moments by a solar corona.

Given our dependence on the communication systems of our planet, both satellite- and ground-based, this is not simply a theoretical worry. The next major geomagnetic storms are expected at the peak of the next solar sunspot cycle in mid-2013, so hang on tight.