Backups during solar storms
September 11, 2010 1:51 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to safeguard my backups from the effects of a solar storm? Should I worry about that at all?

I have about half a terabyte in media I don't want to lose. Currently, I do daily backups locally and online, and I feel reasonably safe about keeping my data even if the house burns down. But I've heard that the effects of solar storms / flares, about to come around in 2011-2012, could be disastrous on technical infrastructure, so I'm wondering what the best way to keep backups would be. Non-magnetic media such as DVDs? Some kind of Faraday cage around a portable HD? What's your advice?

(And please, do tell me if the whole solar storm thing is a tiny risk and I should focus on other aspects of good backups...)
posted by lord_yo to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do not worry about solar storms. a) solar storm panics are mentioned all the time, but solar storm damage not so much. b) If your backups are not connected to the power grid you don't have to worry about solar storms, because solar storms cause problems by induction. Large loops of cable such as power grids might be affected, but not small external hard drives. Good back ups are not connected to the computer they are supposed to back up 24/7. Online backups that are located far away from your local backups will probably not be affected by the same solar storm. c) Do not worry about solar storms, it is much more importand that you have several backup media, so that you do not overwrite the good backup with the bad data by mistake. (Disregard c) in regard of your bracketed comment.)
posted by mmkhd at 2:09 PM on September 11, 2010

What specific articles out there have you worried about your backups? The key term in your question is technical infrastructure. Your home computer system is not, in any sense of the word, infrastructure.

What I'm reading is talking about two major areas:

- Satellites: a problem because they are unprotected (we have the earth's atmosphere), expensive, and impossible to repair. Do you happen to have satellites in orbit?

- Power Grid: a problem because all those wires over hundreds of thousands of miles act like a giant antenna. Solar flares can charge the lines and cause spikes. But what you do to prevent damage is the same thing you'd do in a normal electrical storm: unplug stuff when you aren't using it or buy a UPS.

I haven't read any article that suggests high energy particles from the sun are going to somehow damage your hard drive. Sorry, but the chances of this are extremely unlikely. And even if it did, your HD and file system can generally recover from 1 or 2 bit errors (the most a stray particle could cause).
posted by sbutler at 2:16 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this is much to be worried about, but you should keep your backup media in a fireproof safe anyway, which I imagine would shield it from everything but cosmic rays.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:42 PM on September 11, 2010

I see conspiracy theorists and other loons have latched on to this as the apocalypse de jure, but its just bullshit as usual.

Your home equipment is safe, its not a delicate satellite in space. Nor are you running a major power generating company like Quebec Hydro, which has unique geographic features which made it unusually susceptible to a solar storm in 1989. Your hard drive won't magically be wiped by corneal ejections or via a stray particle. Your worst case scenario by any reasonable predictions is the chance of power outage. Also below number of sunspots expected for 2013. Your 500 gigs of porn are safe.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:47 PM on September 11, 2010

Best answer: I am actually a solar physicist, and can confirm that solar and geomagnetic activity pose essentially no risk to your data. The biggest possible risk would be power outage, so you could buy yourself a UPS if you are really worried, but even then, the risk is really minimal, since these events are predictable and power companies are proactive about mitigating their effects on infrastructure.
posted by dseaton at 4:18 PM on September 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

An anomolous solar event strong enough to destroy a significant portion of Earth's day side isn't outside the realm of possibility, but chances of flares that strong are very low. But the effect of increased radiation levels during nominal solar activity isn't very strong (mostly just disruption of broadcast transmissions), so not to worry.

This reminds me of a query I once heard in the late Reagan years -- would an EMP or nearby nuclear explosion fry my compact disc collection?
posted by Rash at 4:30 PM on September 11, 2010

The only thing I would add to your current setup and regimen is a UPS.

But not because of solar storms, just because it's a good idea in general.
posted by Ookseer at 7:43 PM on September 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all - that was very helpful!

(@damn dirty ape: I didn't even count the porn, but thanks for the reminder!)
posted by lord_yo at 12:59 AM on September 12, 2010

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