Will a solar storm wreak havoc on the internet?

Tales of a Wi-Fi doomsday have been spreading across social media in recent weeks

The sun.
(Image credit: NASA via Getty Images)

You might have seen the rumors online, ironically enough.

Tales of an impending "internet apocalypse" have been circulating across social media in recent weeks, seemingly sparked by misleading reports of a NASA probe sent to allegedly prevent a wifi-devastating solar storm, as well as improper interpretations of an article published by the space agency itself. But the Parker Solar Probe was, in reality, launched to study the sun, not save our phones from it, and an internet apocalypse is at the moment no closer to devastating our online connections than Rihanna is to releasing another album. That said, some degree of celestial communication interference is a real possibility, and one that could technically arise as a result of a "strong solar storm hitting Earth" sometime in the future, per The Washington Post.

First and foremost — what is a solar storm?

When solar material from the sun strikes the Earth's "magnetosphere," it has the potential to create so-called geomagnetic storms strong enough to cause blackouts and grid failures on the ground. In 1859, for example, an intense solar storm known as the Carrington Event sent global telegraph systems on the fritz, (literally) shocking operators who watched in awe as sparks allegedly flew out of their machines. Years later, in 1989, a similar solar disturbance caused a 12-hour electrical blackout in Quebec, Canada, prompting school and business closures.

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How could a solar storm affect us today?

Given the interconnected nature of our highly-digital world, a Carrington Event in 2023 "would have even more severe impacts," such as "widespread electrical disruptions, persistent blackouts and interruptions to global communications," NASA has said. The resulting "technological chaos could cripple economies and endanger the safety of livelihoods of people worldwide." According to estimates from internet watcher NetBlocks, one day of lost connectivity could cost the U.S. more than $11 billion.

"This is not taken into account in our infrastructure deployment today at all," computer science professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, whose paper on how solar storms could affect the interwebs helped popularize the term "internet apocalypse," told the Post.

So an internet apocalypse could happen? If so, when?

It is possible, yes. But experts say it's not very likely. For one thing, powerful solar storms like that of the Carrington Event are only expected once every 500 years.

Moreover, much of the recent attention on the matter arose as a result of an article NASA published in March, wherein the agency highlighted how it is using artificial intelligence to predict "dangerous space weather." The article does not mention the term "internet apocalypse," but it does mention both the Carrington Event and the Quebec blackouts, and notes the modern consequences if a similar phenomenon were to happen today. In employing AI, the space agency hopes it will be able to predict solar storms up to 30 minutes before they happen, giving power grid operators and telecommunication companies time to move their systems offline and prevent added damage.

According to Space.com (which is owned by Future plc, the same parent company as The Week), most of the online falsehoods regarding an impending "internet apocalypse" refer to this March article, as well as research from "earlier this year" suggesting the sun might reach its solar maximum — or a peak in its 11-year activity cycle — in 2024, a year earlier than expected. "While scientists do, in fact, expect major solar storms to occur after solar activity reaches its peak," wrote Space.com's Sharmila Kuthunur, "there is no evidence to support the viral rumors that the next major solar storm will cause the internet to go offline." Similar online panic appears tied to work done by NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which the Post said is intended to "research the physics of the sun" so as to better understand solar winds and storms — "not to keep the WiFi from going out, as TikTok would have you think." Even Jyothi, the computer science professor, regrets using the phrase "internet apocalypse" in her paper, which she said "just got too much attention" and stirred up undue anxiety among the common folk. "Researchers have been talking for a long time about how this could affect the power grid," she told the Post, "but that doesn't scare people to the same extent for some reason."

Indeed, NASA has been warning of potential communications disruption resulting from solar storms and wind since at least 2009, said USA Today. So while yes, some degree of connectivity chaos is possible, the space agency has yet to officially declare doomsday imminent. What's more, "with this AI, it is now possible to make rapid and accurate global predictions and inform decisions in the event of a solar storm," per astronomer and physicist Vishal Upendran, "thereby minimizing — or even preventing — devastation to modern society."

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Brigid Kennedy

Brigid is a staff writer at The Week and a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her passions include improv comedy, David Fincher films, and breakfast food. She lives in New York.