Fear of an “Internet apocalypse” is brewing: How likely are impending solar storms to wreak havoc?

Could solar activity be disturbing Earth’s atmosphere, causing widespread internet outages? (Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) Could a future solar storm knock out the Internet and plunge us all into the pre-telephone days?

Sure, it’s possible. But that may not be very likely.


In recent weeks, social media users have been speculating about the possibility of widespread Internet disruption caused by a coronal mass injection so powerful it could trigger a geomagnetic storm that could knock out online communication for months and wreak havoc on the economy. world.

Concerns about such a scenario were partially fueled by a recent NASA article detailing space agency efforts to predict particularly powerful solar storms that could potentially have disruptive effects on telecommunications, satellites and power grids.

Furthermore, the risk of geomagnetic storms and devastating effects on our society is currently increasing as we approach the next solar maximum, a peak in the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle expected to arrive in 2025, Vanessa Thomas wrote. science writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also found that the current solar cycle is activating at a faster rate than scientists predicted, although they ultimately expect an average amount of activity for the rest of the cycle. according to the article .

But that hasn’t stopped people from running with the idea that an Internet apocalypse (a term popularized by a University of California, Irvine researcher in a 2021 study) may soon be upon us.

Experts say that’s not very likely, though.

While solar activity has had disruptive effects in relatively recent years (including a 1989 solar storm that cut electricity to Quebec), one of the most disruptive on record occurred in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the storm sent a solar flare into the Earth’s atmosphere, triggering a geomagnetic storm that shut down electrical currents, lit up the sky with auroras and sent telegraph systems around the world going haywire, NASA once wrote.

Powerful geomagnetic storms leave evidence, of course, and NASA scientists have found some specifically within the Arctic ice, elevated levels of nitrate concentrations. Looking back for evidence of previous large-scale events, experts have determined that such a phenomenon occurs approximately every 500 years.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen sooner, though.

Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, the author of the 2021 UC Irvine study, quoted astrophysicists who estimate the likelihood of an internet disruption event at between 1.6% and 12% per decade. And if something like this were to happen, it would have more devastating effects on today’s tech culture, he said.

We have never experienced one of the extreme case events and we don’t know how our infrastructure would respond to it, Jyothi told the Washington Post. Our failure tests don’t even include such scenarios.

Jyothi, however, told the Post that she regrets coining the term internet apocalypse, as it seems to have stirred some sort of anxiety among readers, despite it being long debated by solar storm researchers.

NASA, meanwhile, is actively working on technology that could predict potential solar activity that will disrupt the internet. The space agency launched its Parker Space Probe in 2018 to gather information about solar conditions and the solar wind, which is responsible for sending solar particles towards Earth. Scientists at NASA and other government agencies are also using artificial intelligence to develop technology that NASA says can help predict geomagnetic disturbances half an hour before they occur. That could be enough time to take sensitive systems offline, NASA writes.

With this AI, it is now possible to make fast and accurate global forecasts and make informed decisions in the event of a solar storm, thereby minimizing or even preventing the devastation of modern society, said Vishal Upendran of the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in India , in a March article published by NASA.

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