Aurora Borealis, Cleveland, OH
People watching the aurora borealis over Cleveland. Photo credit: Erik Drost / Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The solar storm brought a lot of lovely aurora pictures but no Great Blackout. Maybe next time.

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I’ve noticed that there is an elegant process by which any scientific event, especially the extraordinary, can be converted efficiently into conspiracy theory. “Awe” transmutes to “fear”; “novel” translates to “terminal.” If it’s big enough, or strange enough, it will eventually crystallize as evidence of impending doomsday.

So I was surprised by the muted reaction, even in fatalist circles, to the recent solar storm and resulting auroras that spread across the northern hemisphere. For a few days, social media was a lovely place to look at pictures.

The eschatological thinking is there, of course. During the kind of storm we saw recently, bursts of high-energy solar plasma splash into the Earth’s magnetic field, which can interfere with communication satellites and the long-range fibers that facilitate modern life. In 1859, the most powerful recorded solar storm supposedly ignited telegraph wires and electrocuted operators in what became known as the Carrington Event. Today, the risk is to our most precious resource: the internet. 

In 2021, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, a computer scientist at the University of California, Irvine, published a paper called “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse.” That paper, a response to the world being blindsided by the “black swan” event of the COVID-19 pandemic, elucidated the risks to the world’s telecommunications systems of “solar superstorms that can potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months.” 

With the concept of an “internet apocalypse” thus planted, the media was primed for some hysteria. In 2023, a couple of press releases kicked the fear into a higher gear. That March, there was a NASA statement about tools the agency uses to “sound the alarm for dangerous space weather.” Two months later, a press release from Berkeley’s Physics Department talked about the Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018 and now close enough to the sun to study the solar winds. 

Outlets unafraid to play fast and loose with the truth spun this up. The UK’s Mirror, for one, wrongly interpreted the Probe’s mandate as a “NASA mission to prevent ‘internet apocalypse’ which could leave people offline for months.” That kind of coverage in turn inspired a flurry of more responsible news coverage that, while accurate, is still just as dire as the less-rigorous news. Pulling one more or less at random, here’s how a USA Today story frames the internet apocalypse:

If the internet fails on a scale that large, the consequences could be devastating — causing billions of dollars of losses per day to the U.S. economy and impeding the production and supply chains for essential materials like food and medicine.

The same day, The Washington Post offered its take:

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.

The Post story is notable for quoting Jyothi, the computer science professor whose paper raised the issue to public consciousness: 

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.

A few days later, Snopes had to sigh heavily and step in to address the misinformation about this whole internet apocalypse business.

That brings us to March 2024, when another UK tabloid of the sort you’d cross the street to avoid, the Daily Express, dusted off the issue, presumably for some quick hits. (Which Snopes then had to dust off its response to.)

The conditions, then, were perfect for an explosion of high-energy bullshit during this recent geomagnetic storm. 

And yet… not so much. I stuck my head in at all the usual digital dives and watering holes serving up frosty mugs of unhinged ranting. Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, Rumble. Nothing. Or at least, nothing special. Not like you’d imagine. Even Facebook could be said to be, and I may come to regret this, normal.

This should be good news, but the journalistic brain is threatened by positive developments. It makes us feel we are doing something wrong if we can’t find a cloud within that silver lining. I’m borderline disappointed when I look at the Fox News site and don’t see anything even remotely apocalyptic.

How things have changed, I think. What happened to the Fox News I remember from 2008? Have you forgotten the Large Hadron Collider?

Large Hadron Collider, CERN

The Large Hadron Collider, which turned out not to be a black-hole machine. Photo credit: Image Editor / Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The Large Hadron Collider sits coiled under the landscape of France and Switzerland, a $9 billion project generally considered — even outside its parent organization, the European science agency CERN — to be the largest and most expensive physics experiment in history. Which history, if some news reports at the time were to be believed, was coming to an end.

The LHC is the culmination of attempts to send subatomic particles faster and faster under colder and colder conditions, to smash them into each other to replicate, for specks of time it takes very large computers to catch, the beginnings of the universe. 

For all the excitement generated during the construction of this big quantum donut, there were also fears that the machine would, owing to the physics involved, create black holes that would swallow up the planet, or unnatural energy fluctuations that would manhandle the universe itself. As an ongoing narrative, the news media had carved out quite a tale, with tones ranging from sober evaluations of potential threats to cheeky considerations of the end of the world. 

The doomsaying began, in the few years leading up to the September 2008 debut of the machine, with story after story asking whether the LHC might, perhaps, kill us all — though it’s fair to say it entered the public consciousness with a fury in the summer of 2008. That’s when the news media caught on to what great headlines were possible — “end of the world” and “doomsday” being terms to put asses in seats. 

Even the most humorless of news outlets managed at least a mention of black holes or related doomsaying in what might otherwise have been reasonable coverage, but there were notable examples of absurdly irresponsible reportage the world over. In the US, Fox News played its contrarian card with a January 2009 story entitled “Scientists Not So Sure ‘Doomsday Machine’ Won’t Destroy World.” A close reading rewards the reader: Not only are the scientists cast as being hopelessly indecisive, but those quotes around “doomsday machine” imply that that’s the actual name of the device. Well, Fox News is telling us, we get what we deserve when we let the lousy Europeans build something called a “Doomsday Machine.”

Here’s more of that network’s refreshing brand of skepticism regarding the impossibility of the LHC ending the world: “ can think of a few other things that didn’t seem possible once — the theory of continental drift, the fact that rocks fall from the sky, the notion that the Earth revolves around the sun, the idea that scientists could be horribly wrong.”

Meanwhile, The Daily Mail was practically trying to suck the eyeballs out of our heads. That outlet’s headlines made Fox seem downright blue-state: “Are We Going to Die Next Wednesday?” 

Such was the tenor of coverage for some underground particle experiments in French sheep country. Fifteen years later, here are solar storms that actually forced airlines to reroute planes from the poles to avoid cosmic radiation, that forced ​​astronauts on the International Space Station into hiding, that addled the GPS of farm equipment so badly that at least one tractor drove around in circles, muttering to itself (probably) about the corn never stopping. Here are real threats to drive the most nihilistic headline-writer into ecstasies of pessimism, but the coverage was, across the board, wildly banal.

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Perhaps the news media at large is actually being more responsible. Perhaps Fox News decided to exercise more caution since losing a $787.5 million defamation suit to Dominion Voting Systems for its frankly insane election coverage. Or perhaps it’s something in the nature of an internet apocalypse. 

Look beyond the Fox News story on the solar storm, down beneath the well-behaved slideshow of aurora snaps. There, where the people live, there are still villagers waving pitchforks at one conspiratorial monster or another. Apropos of nothing in the Fox story itself, its commenters found a way to invoke George Floyd, to deny man-made climate change, and to suggest that liberals will take the auroras as “a sign we need to spew more tomato sauce on priceless works of art and occupy campuses.” 

The internet apocalypse did lurk in and among these exchanges. The Great Blackout expressed not as dread, but as aspiration.

The sentiment was best expressed by a commenter named DontNeedUHoes: “Best outcome possible is that it takes out all the internet and cell phones forever. Now that’s when we’ll have some progress and stability.” To which nomadforlife replied, “Can’t love this enough.”

The solar storm wasn’t feared because it promised to bring what many people, particularly those inclined to convert science to conspiracy, most want: a return to an earlier time. A state of being so mythic it could deliver even the seemingly contradictory — progress and stability. So: a phenomenon whose meaning is hope, not fear, which isn’t supported by any model of news or social media currently known to science.

Worry not; you can worry later. The sun runs in roughly 11-year cycles of activity. In 2012, a solar superstorm that may have been as powerful as the Carrington Event just missed us. Sometime between late 2024 and early 2026, the sun will reach what’s called the “solar maximum” again. According to the whispered calculations of the apocalyptic mathematicians, that’s when we may be guaranteed our doomsday, drifting down the sky on ribbons of pastel light, right before the power goes out.


  • Brandon R. Reynolds

    Brandon R. Reynolds is an award-winning journalist and comedy writer for print, radio, and television. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, WIRED, Los Angeles Magazine, and KCRW.

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