(NEXSTAR) – Could a future solar storm knock out the internet and plunge us all into the pre-dial-up days of yore?
Sure, it’s possible. But it might not be very likely.
In recent weeks, users on social media have been deliberating the possibility of a widespread internet outage caused by a coronal mass injection — one so powerful that it causes a geomagnetic storm that could knock out online communication for months and cause devastation to the worldwide economy.
Concerns over such a scenario were partially fueled by a recent NASA article detailing the space agency’s efforts to predict especially powerful solar storms that potentially could have disruptive effects on telecommunications, satellites and power grids.
“In addition, the risk of geomagnetic storms and devastating effects on our society is presently increasing as we approach the next ‘solar maximum’ — a peak in the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle — which is expected to arrive sometime in 2025,” wrote Vanessa Thomas, a science writer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) further noted that the current solar cycle is becoming active at a faster rate than scientists predicted, though they ultimately expect an “average” amount of activity through the rest of the cycle, according to the article.
But that hasn’t stopped folks from running with the idea that an “internet apocalypse” — a term made popular by a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, in a 2021 study — could soon be upon us.
Experts say it isn’t very likely, though.
While solar activity has had disruptive effects in relatively recent years (including a 1989 solar storm that knocked out power in Quebec), one of the most disruptive on record occurred in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the storm sent a solar flare toward Earth’s atmosphere, triggering a geomagnetic storm that disrupted electrical currents, lit up the sky with auroras and caused worldwide telegraph systems to go “haywire,” NASA once wrote.
Powerful geomagnetic storms leave evidence, of course, and scientists with NASA found some within arctic ice — specifically, elevated levels of nitrate concentrations. Looking back for evidence of previous large-scale events, experts determined such a phenomenon takes place every 500 years or so.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen sooner, though.
Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, the author of the 2021 UC Irvine study, cited astrophysicists who put the likelihood of an internet-disrupting event at somewhere between 1.6% and 12% per decade. And if something like that were to occur, it would have more devastating effects on today’s technological culture, she said.
“We’ve 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 testing doesn’t even include such scenarios.”
Jyothi did, however, tell the Post she regretted coining the term “internet apocalypse,” as it seems to have awakened some sort of anxiety among readers, despite long being discussed by researchers of solar storms.
NASA, meanwhile, is actively working on technology that could predict potential internet-disrupting solar activity. The space agency launched its Parker Space Probe in 2018 to gather information on solar conditions and solar wind, which is responsible for sending solar particles toward Earth. Scientists with NASA and other government agencies are also using artificial intelligence to develop technology that, NASA says, can help predict geomagnetic disturbances a half-hour before they occur. That could be just enough time to take sensitive systems offline, NASA writes.
“With this AI, it is now possible to make rapid and accurate global predictions and inform decisions in the event of a solar storm, thereby minimizing — or even preventing — devastation to modern society,” said Vishal Upendran of the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in India, in a March article published by NASA.