The Sun and Your Computer

Got enough to worry about?  Cat 4 Hurricanes, twin tornados, dust devils that arise thmysteriously and send bounce houses high in the air, a weird election, ads where truth really is “the first casualty”?

How about solar radiation?

No, this isn’t about tanning on the beach.  Its about getting radiation when you don’t know you are, and turning your electronic devices into doorstops.

Cisco reminded us this week of the power of solar flares (radiation storms) to disrupt all forms of communications — including the Internet.  Cisco issued a report last week blaming data loss in one model of its routers on cosmic radiation.  However, Cisco didn’t stop there.  The report goes on to state that this has been a known problem since 2001, and that as computer chips increase in speed and density, the risk of disruption by radiation increases.

What happens when routers crash?  The Internet and cloud computing crash.  Applications based on either stop working, and data in the cloud becomes inaccessible.  The effects might be for a few minutes or a few hours, or . . . ?

Of course, if there is no electric power, that’s the least of your problems.  Radiation from a solar storm shut down the electric grid in Quebec for 12 hours in 1989.   The storm affected 5 million people and recovery cost over $2 billion.  Imagine a day with no electricity?

NASA did a report in 2013 that international travelers on high altitude flights can receive up to 12% of the total radiation their body can tolerate in a year during that one flight segment if there’s a solar flare.  None segments and you could have a toxic dose.

The worst solar flare/radiation event knows was the Carrington event of 1859.  It was strong enough to set telegraph office on fire from electric overload — in fact some offices were able to operate only by disconnecting their batteries and running only using solar radiation for power.  We’ve not seen anything quite like this in the modern era.  But then, we hadn’t seen a Fukushima or Hurricane Sandy until they happened either.

However, we had a near miss in 2014.

It’s not a matter of if, just a question of when.



(1) Khan, Amina, “Yikes! Solar storm that almost hit Earth could have caused chaos,” The Los Angeles Times, 20 March 2014.

(2) McNamara, Paul, “Cisco: Yes, cosmic radiation could have caused router bug,” Network World, 22 September 2016.







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