Is the ‘Internet Apocalypse’ Nigh? Breaking Down the Solar-Storm Science

The idea of a widespread internet outage caused by a solar superstorm has captured imaginations and sparked misinformation, but concern isn't totally unfounded.

The Washington Post

June 29, 2023

4 Min Read
closeup image of the sun
Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA

It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi. Magnetic fields unleashed by a solar superstorm rip through the Earth's magnetosphere, sending currents surging through human infrastructure. Aurora borealis unusually fill southern skies with shimmering blues and greens. We look up from our phones and computers to catch a glimpse, and the internet as we know it blinks out.

Physically, most of us are fine. But in a matter of hours, we are boomeranged back to the analog era, where the only thing that tweets is the bird outside our window.

The "internet apocalypse," as it's called, has recently captured imaginations on social media, prompting quick-spreading misinformation about nonexistent NASA warnings and speculation about what the hyper-online might do with themselves in an offline world. Apocalypse preppers, religious doomsday Redditors and writers have all, at some point, seized on the idea.

And it's easy to understand the intrigue. Virtually every aspect of human life is bound up in the internet, and its absence could have disastrous consequences - not to mention that many of us can barely stand a 30-second elevator ride without WiFi.

But drama aside, these concerns are not entirely fiction. A widespread internet outage could, indeed, be brought on by a strong solar storm hitting Earth - a rare but very real event that has not yet happened in the digital age, experts say. When a solar storm known as the Carrington Event struck in 1859, telegraph lines sparked, operators were electrocuted and the northern lights descended to latitudes as low as Jamaica. A 1989 solar storm took out the Quebec power grid for hours. And in 2012, a storm just missed the Earth.

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As the sun, which has roughly 11-year cycles, enters a particularly active period known as the "solar maximum" in 2025, some are worried our interconnected world is not prepared.

Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, a computer science professor at University of California at Irvine whose paper "Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse" has played a role in popularizing the term, started thinking about internet resilience when the coronavirus began to spread, and she realized how unprepared we were for a pandemic. Research on widespread internet failure was scant.

"We've never experienced one of the extreme case events, and we don't know how our infrastructure would respond to it," Jyothi said. "Our failure testing doesn't even include such scenarios."

She notes that a severe solar storm is likely to affect large-scale infrastructure such as submarine communication cables, which could interrupt long-distance connectivity. If you have not lost power, you might have access to say, a government website hosted locally, but reaching bigger websites, which could have data stored all over the place, might not be possible.

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The northern latitudes are also especially vulnerable to solar storms, and that's where a lot of internet infrastructure is concentrated. "This is not taken into account in our infrastructure deployment today at all," she said.

Such outages could last for months, depending on the scale and how long it takes to repair the damage. The economic impact of just one day of lost connectivity in the United States alone is estimated to be more than $11 billion, according to the internet watcher NetBlocks.

Still, Jyothi says she has felt bad for using the term "internet apocalypse" in her paper. There's not much ordinary people can do to prepare for such a phenomenon; it falls on governments and companies. And the paper "just got too much attention," she said.

"Researchers have been talking for a long time about how this could affect the power grid," she notes, "but that doesn't scare people to the same extent for some reason." Losing power also causes one to lose internet, of course.

The recent online panic appears to have been sparked by recent discoveries from the Parker Solar Probe, a NASA device launched in 2018 to research the physics of the sun and the solar atmosphere - not to keep the WiFi from going out, as TikTok would have you think.

A few weeks ago, scientists published new evidence from the probe about the source of solar winds, which they say are the result of a phenomenon called "magnetic reconnection." While the research did not look specifically at solar storms, it has broader relevance. The solar atmosphere changes very slowly, says Stuart D. Bale, a physics professor at University of California at Berkeley and a principal investigator for NASA working on the probe. So "anytime something changes really fast magnetically on the sun, it's probably due to reconnection."

Coronal mass ejections, expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields that can power damaging solar storms, occur over a short time frame and are probably a part of this mechanism, he said.

"The more we know about magnetic reconnection on the sun," Bale said "the more predictive power it's going to give us for space weather."

Speaking while on a trip to Japan, Bale said he understands the sort of panic the "internet apocalypse" idea instills. "My wife has gone up to some town three hours from here. And the only way she knows her way back is with her phone, and we don't have any cash," he said. "It could really be a mess."

But typically, Bale doesn't worry about solar storms too much. "In some ways, I'd rather be growing my own potatoes in the countryside, not using a mobile phone," he said.

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