by January 29, 2013 0 comments

What are the risks to IT from solar flares?

IT relies and lives on uninterrupted power availability and it is not in every organization’s cup of tea to have a robust power backup system in place. A powerful geomagnetic storm (which, in simple terms, has the potential to disrupt electricity grids on Earth) arose after a solar flare in 1989 and resulted in long outages in the electricity grid in Canada and a few other instances in USA, Russia, etc. However, solar flares do not stop there. They can cause damage to not just property but to life too. The largest solar flare on record so far (in 1859) wreaked havoc not just on the Morse Code systems in place at that time but also electrocuted and burnt many people using such systems. What is worrying is, in spite of this, it was much difficult to recover from the damages of the 1989 solar flare compared to the much stronger one in 1859, which can be obviously attributed to the world being much more wired in the recent times than ever before.

With the widespread use of mobile devices today, it is beyond doubt that a particularly powerful solar flare has the potential to cause irrepairable damage to the sensitive electronics which we use and are dependent on. Experts believe that the IT equipment which we use regularly is ill-equipped to face such dangers. Today it is not a surprise to hear of an exploding laptop/mobile phone because of overcharging/battery issues. In India itself, regional power grids have experienced multiple major failures last year, both before as well as after the festival season. Such events have taken place at off-peak times as well when demand is expected to be very much within supply and powerful solar flares can exactly give rise to such failures although India is relatively safer because of it’s geographic location.

It also takes a huge investment in time, manpower/efforts, resources and money to recover from the damage, although damage to life and property on a more conventional basis would not be as widespread as in a catastrophe (but might result as a secondary effect of such flares because of the ensuing fires breaking out and transformers in electrical grids exploding). Underground telecom networks (especially those relying on fiber optics) and equipment are relatively immune to the damage compared to airwaves, satellites, GPS and roof-top equipment. Current generation power-conditioning equipment is incapable of protecting against the strongest of solar flares, which have classes assigned to them similar to the Richter scale of earthquakes, with a class X solar flare being the strongest.

What is the current progress on predicting such events?

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research reported on November 30, 2012 that a new radio telescope, which can potentially save the world from billions of damage, has been completed after eight years. Named as the Murchison Widefield Array(MWA) telescope, it’s development was undertaken by a group of 13 institutions, including India’s Raman Research Institute at Bengaluru. Scientists hope that because of the improved warning period of solar flares with the MWA compared to earlier telescopes, it would be possible to take relatively quicker preventive action (which includes but is not limited to isolating or shutting down critical infrastructure and reorienting satellites in the solar flare’s path on a temporary basis). It may be noted that although light from the sun reaches us in about 8 minutes, solar flares fortunately take much longer (about 20 hours) to reach the Earth, giving some breathing room for precautionary measures.

The Threat to Satellite-based Communication is Real

We had an interaction with Dr. Jitendra J. Rawal, founder president of the Indian Planetary Society and ex-director, Nehru Planetarium, Mumbai. Presented here are his views on solar flares in India.

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1. Who keeps a watch on solar activity in India?

The solar observatory at Udaipur observes the sun. It was built by Dr. Arvind Bhatnagar and participates in international collaborative programs such as the Global Oscillations Network Group (GONG) to keep a watch nearly 24×7. India actually needs more such solar observatories.

2. What are the risks to Indian IT businesses from solar flares?

There are likely chances of Internet services being disrupted, especially those which rely on satellites. On the ground there is not much of a reason to worry because of India’s geographical position. So far any effects which the solar flares have had till date in India (on record) have been negligible. But yes, the possibilities of large scale damage in the current solar cycle do exist and we need to be ready. It’s a far more real threat than the doomsday rumours surrounding 21 Dec. 2012. There also exist chances of changes in the chemical properties of the elements being used in our IT equipment, which can cause them to malfunction, often with a damaging result.

Rural areas in India are used to blackouts and also electrification is relatively low in such areas. Hence, neither will it be difficult to recover from damages there nor will it cause any major interruptions in businesses in such areas.

3. What precautions can Indian IT companies take against this?

There are no precautions as such which can be taken. It will be indeed safer to have the network, devices, etc. on standby during the said time. The effect on underground networks and equipment would vary depending on the depth below the surface.

What does this mean for SMBs and how can they take steps to minimize potential damage/loss of business due to interruption?

In addition to safeguarding against the risks mentioned above to the extent possible, for organizations that who rely on the cloud, it might mean losing access to the hosted systems since it is likely that the physical location where their data and applications reside is closer to the magnetic poles of the Earth (the geographic region most vulnerable to solar flares) than what most of India is. The same also applies to those who rely heavily on satellite systems, since satellites are not shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere. Organizations also need to give priority to planning for disaster recovery and determine how reliable their off-site backup systems and fail-over systems(if any) are so as to ensure business continuity in times of disaster. If no such system is in place, now is a good time to start planning before the current solar cycle reaches it’s peak soon.

Also, the space weather prediction center of the national weather service, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US dept. of commerce, has made available two new, experimental forecast products. One of them provides a 3-day summary forecast in one page and the other, a longer, in-depth discussion using more scientific terminology. Both of these are produced twice daily at 0600 and 1800 IST and are respectively available from and . You can also subscribe to the updates from . The feedback URLs for both of these products are respectively and and feedback will be accepted till February 12th. These two products are meant to supplement the existing product suite(none of which have been discontinued at the time of writing) such as the solar wind measurements and sunspot counters. These are freely available tools and of most importance to any IT dept. would be the section of the summary that predicts the chances of radio blackouts over the next 3 days. SMBs can be better prepared by making use of these tools and keeping a close watch on the regular updates rather than being caught off guard.

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