Protecting Digital Assets from Solar Flares

August 19, 2013

By Frank Griffin - Contributing Writer

In 1859 the Carrington Event was responsible for blowing out telegraph lines across the United States. Because the technology was still in its infancy, it was not available everywhere, limiting the damage caused by the solar flare. However, if an event such as the one that took place in 1859 repeats itself today, the damage would be catastrophic. Virtually everything we rely on today depends on electricity, and if it is not adequately protected the damage will affect the electric grid and data centers – two extremely critical components in our modern world.

Scientists know the sun has 11 year cycles in which large solar flares hit Earth, disturbing the magnetic field protecting our planet. During this peak cycle, which can last four or more months, unprotected A/V and IT equipment can get damaged by spikes and surges in the power grid.

Power companies are fully aware of this problem and protect the grid by load shedding in order to stop transformers from burning out. During this process spikes and surges take place which can fry devices that are not adequately protected. In addition to the power companies the power grid also experiences spikes, surges and outages caused by the solar flare. Using surge suppression, UPS devices, and power conditioners protects the technology we use to work and play with.

Recent pictures released by NASA of a sunspot the size of six Earths placed next to each other by the Solar Dynamics Observatory is sure to keep power companies and datacenter operators up until the event dies down. Although not all sunspots are dangerous, there are times when a spot will create a massive solar flare hurling streams of radiation in our direction, setting up a geomagnetic storm here on earth. The danger of this storm not only affects the infrastructure here on earth, but also satellites which are responsible for many ICT solutions around the world.

In order to protect their assets data centers have systems in place with multiple redundancies to ensure service is not interrupted. While most of these contingencies are for common threats such as cyber-attacks, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and floods, solar flares are becoming part of the list.

Experts agree a multi-pronged solution with human and machine monitoring is necessary in order to minimize the damage if a center is hit by a geomagnetic storm.

Edited by Rich Steeves