“Black Swan events are hard-to-predict rare events that can significantly alter the course of our lives,” begins a 2021 paper by a computer science professor at the University of California.

Now the Washington Post revisits that exploration of the possibility that “magnetic fields unleashed by a solar superstorm rip through Earth’s magnetosphere, sending currents surging through human infrastructure.”

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 Earth.

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. 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.
“Astrophysicists estimate the likelihood of a solar storm of sufficient strength to cause catastrophic disruption occurring within the next decade to be 1.6 to 12%,” the paper concludes. (It also notes that the U.S. has a higher risk for a disconnection than Asia.)

“Paying attention to this threat and planning defenses against it, like our preliminary effort in this paper, is critical for the long-term resilience of the Internet.”

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