Would the Internet Survive the End of the World?

You may not be able to survive without the internet, but could the internet survive without us?

A recent multi-national survey by Tata Communications found that over two-thirds of respondents said they felt “fear, anxiety and anger” when not connected to the internet. Many of them said they’d give up traditional TV or alcohol to stay online.

And 60% said they believe the internet is infinite. Well, even the Pope admitted that the internet is a gift from God… But for some people, it’s almost like the internet itself is now God.

While the internet may have a few of the qualities of God (incomprehensibility and mystery stand out), it could be lacking in the infinity and transcendence departments. The internet, even with all its seemingly mystical properties, is still based on terrestrial technology, which is limited and finite. Could it go on without us?

That depends on what ends us. Like with the dinosaurs, the ultimate cause of humanity’s eventual extinction is up for debate.

Could a deadly pandemic wipe us off the earth, or will a supervolcano eruption steal our sunlight? Could catastrophic climate change cool us off for good, or will an asteroid finish the job first? Or will we not even have to wait around for a natural disaster, but send ourselves into oblivion with nuclear war first?

No matter how we go, the important question is: will the internet survive us? These days, the average American spends 11 hours a day using electronic media. The internet is our life, our legacy: our Facebook profiles, tweets, blog posts, and selfies must live on!

Luckily, many of the above disasters wouldn’t result in the complete destruction of the internet, since it’s not centralized in a single location. Still, the servers that run the internet do rely on a vulnerable power source.

Would the internet survive zombies, asteroids, or a robot uprising? Check out the graphic below to find out — and prepare.

Would the Internet Survive the End of the World?

Would the Internet Survive the End of the World?

It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet is one of the most important inventions humanity has ever created. Over 2 billion people are online, 70% of whom use the web every day. We use it to navigate the physical world, connect to the each other through social media, and even do our jobs, but can the web survive the end of the world? (And could we survive the end of the web?)

How the World Might End

When discussing the question, “Could the internet survive the apocalypse?” another question must be answered first, namely, “What sort of apocalypse are we talking about?” Here are a few fanciful (and factual) ways the world could end:

  • Pandemic
    • An extremely infectious and lethal disease that spreads on a global scale.
    • Likelihood: Possible
      • The Bubonic Plague killed 25-75 million people in 14th century Europe, roughly ⅓ of the global population.
      • In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed approximately 100 million people (more than those who died in WWI).
      • In 2010, 1.3-1.9 million died from HIV/AIDS.
        • As many as 35 million people were estimated to have HIV in 2012.
  • Supervolcano eruption
    • A massive volcano erupts, killing those around it and ejecting volcanic ash into the atmosphere.
    • Likelihood: Possible, but probably not likely to occur for thousands of years.
      • When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, it killed 57 people and launched less than one cubic mile of ash into the atmosphere.
      • The Yellowstone super-volcano ejected over 1,000 cubic miles of ash when it erupted 2 million years ago.
        • Researchers have determined that this eruption would have covered the US in ash from southern California to the Mississippi River.
          • States like Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming would be buried under 3 feet of ash.
        • Whatever ash didn’t settle to the ground would dim the sun’s rays, cooling the Earth and harming plants’ ability to photosynthesize.
          • When the Toba supervolcano erupted 74,000 years ago, it triggered a global 6-10 year winter.
  • Catastrophic climate change
    • Global climates change drastically, causing intensely damaging weather patterns, and the extinction of flora and fauna species.
    • Likelihood: Possible
      • 150,000 people die each year from climate change-related causes, including:
        • Malnutrition
        • Malaria
        • Diarrhoea
        • Heat stress
      • 634 million people live in low-elevation coastal areas and are at risk from rising sea levels.
  • Asteroid
    • A large celestial object strikes the Earth.
    • Likelihood: Possible, but we’d see it coming.
      • An asteroid the size of a house would impact the planet with roughly the same energy as the bomb that fell on Hiroshima (20 kilotons).
      • One the size of a skyscraper would have roughly 25-50 megatons of energy, equal to the world’s biggest nuclear weapons.
      • A mile-wide asteroid, like 1997 XF11 which is scheduled to fly by in 2028, would be roughly equivalent to 1 million megatons of energy.
        • An asteroid of this size would likely wipe out all life on the
      • Luckily, NASA’s Near Earth Object Program and other astronomers from around the world are always on the look out for so-called “planet killers.”
  • Nuclear war
    • A nuclear exchange between two nations, or an all-out war between every country that has the bomb.
    • Likelihood: Possible. Only two nuclear missiles have ever been fired in war-time, but there are a lot more of them now.
      • A study examining a hypothetical nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan concluded that over 1 billion people would die and another 1.3 billion people in China would be in immediate risk.
      • Large nuclear explosions would carry dust and black carbon particulates into the stratosphere, leading to nuclear winter and decreased food production.
      • Even decades after a nuclear war, millions would suffer from miscarriages, cancers, genetic abnormalities, and other side effects of radiation.

Could the Internet Survive?

So if the world did end, assuming a few people were still around to use it, would the internet survive?

The Good News

  • Because the internet isn’t based in a single country, corporation, or installation, a massive catastrophe in one part of the world–or even several parts–won’t destroy the web.
  • ARPAnet, the distributed node package-switching network that was one of the predecessors of today’s internet, was designed to continue functioning even during a nuclear war.
  • Satellite internet systems could continue providing internet access even if fiber optic and landline networks have been knocked out.

The Bad News

  • Conventional power stations would likely be destroyed.
    • Internet users would need to rely on solar, wind, and turbine energy in order to power their devices and connect with the web.
  • The biggest problem for most websites is the fact that web servers need power to keep running.
    • Globally, website data centers use 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equal to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.
  • An EMP attack (either by itself or caused by a nuclear bomb), would not only damage the internet, it would fry all electronics within its radius.
    • As a whole, the internet wouldn’t die, but no one within the radius of the blast would be able to access it.

The Internet “Kill Switch”

Depending on the kind of end-of-the-world scenario society faces, the internet may or may not survive. But news reports from around the globe indicate that governments may have their own ways to cut off the web that don’t require a robot uprising.

  • Egypt

    • During the revolts against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Egyptian government ordered the few major ISPs in the country to cease providing service.
      • Obligated to comply, the ISPs did, and data traffic to and from Egypt dropped 90%.
      • The internet remained down for five days.
  • Syria

    • In 2012 and 2013, the Syrian government cut off internet access almost completely.
      • At one point, traffic was 0.2% of normal levels.
      • Syria has only one ISP, which is state-controlled.
      • Only four physical fiber-optic cables connect the country to the rest of the internet:
        • Three undersea cables that land in Tartous, Syria
        • One over-land cable that travels through Turkey
  • America

    • A plan developed during the George W. Bush era granted the authority to the US government to “kill” the internet in a localized area.
      • The plan is called “Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303.”
      • EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) successfully sued the Department of Homeland Security, and a judge has ordered the DHS to release pertinent documents related to the “kill switch.”

How difficult would it be to disable the American web?

  • Due to the vast number of ISPs in the US, the government (or any foreign power or group of hackers) would have extreme difficulty in causing a nationwide internet blackout.
    • Renesys, a corporation that studies global internet usage, categorizes the US as “resistant” to a web blockade similar to what occurred in Syria and Egypt.
  • However, as the VP of Public Knowledge, a communications and technology policy advocacy group, points out:
    • Large ISPs control a majority of the US’s internet traffic
    • If the top 10 ISPs were to stop the flow of traffic, the average US citizen would find it difficult to use the web

If the world does end tomorrow, it’s not totally clear whether the remaining humans will be able to boot up their computers and Google: “How to survive the apocalypse.” On a more realistic note, however, US citizens and those around the world need to be aware of their country’s vulnerability to an internet “kill switch.” Life without the internet — for those who rely on it — might be its own end-of-the-world scenario.

Sources

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One Comment to “Would the Internet Survive the End of the World?”

  1. Yeah internet will die once power is out.

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