Would the internet survive Armageddon?
July 1, 2007 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Would the internet survive Armageddon?

For the purposes of a work of fiction, I am trying to ascertain what likely forms of communication would be available after an apocalyptic event (full scale nuclear war, some sort of pathogen that results in massive depopulation etc). All internet history notes that it was designed to survive, but is this only in the context of dedicated machines in government bunkers?

Obvious impediments would be EMP damage to computers, lack of electricity, general unavailability of ISPs. But if you can power your laptop on your bicycle, and you have the right equipment, will the internet still be available after the end of the world?
posted by szechuan to Computers & Internet (37 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Well, certain infrastructural things would be required, like routers and the things that power the "backbone" of the Internet--like DNS servers and such. The availability of electricity throughout the network would be a major issue as well.

As long as all of these things were there, I don't see why the Internet couldn't exist.

Good reference--New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After being hit by the disaster, the area did not have Internet access for quite some time, except what was brought in from the outside and connected via satellite. If that happened throughout the world, it wouldn't really matter if you could power your laptop with your bike, the infrastructure to physically run the devices would just not be there.
posted by DMan at 7:30 PM on July 1, 2007

I would suspect that it would only be up as long as the power grid was up, plus some length of time after that where backup systems still have fuel or battery power. Even if you could power your own computer, all the routers and other devices that make up the network infrastructure would need power. You could probably do some data transmission over radio or satellite phones, as you would power the radio and the satellites probably have solar panels.

For a short story in this vein, check out "When Sysadmins Rules the Earth".
posted by procrastination at 7:33 PM on July 1, 2007

I was just talking to friends about this.

It depends on the technical abilities on those who survive to get some sort of network back up and running.

If a network provider is taken out or damaged then there is not much I could do to bring back some sort of connectivity... something like a grassroots wireless system could come about or hijacking some other lines and tailor them to restore some connectivity. As long as theres power there will be some sort of internets.
posted by ronmexico at 7:34 PM on July 1, 2007

IANANE (I am not a network engineer) but this would most likely depend on;

- the equipment that survives (whether it's shielded from EMP, the site is self powered
- the availability of knowledge and expertise to re-build routes and destinations
- the number and availability of interconnects used to spread access.

Perhaps there is a network engineer floating around on MeFi that can better answer this. However, something to consider is this; does your definition of the internet encompass what we know today of the internet, or the broad basic terminology associated with a large, wide area open network? The latter would be obviously easier to recreate in a post-apocalyptic society, because IMO, the internet we know has millions of destinations, most if not all of which would not exist after such an event.
posted by richter_x at 7:36 PM on July 1, 2007

Some of the internet would continue to run for a few days - a phone switch in the basement of the WTC was still running after the towers collapsed - but once batteries and generators are exhausted, no more internet.

There's also doubt as to how long it would take and how much effort would be needed to reboot the internet after a complete shutdown.

In either case, local bicycle power isn't enough for the current infrastructure. If however you're willing to use less common means of communication, like packet radio, with the right wavelength you could have low bandwidth internet over large distances pretty quickly.
posted by zippy at 7:40 PM on July 1, 2007

Not as we know it, now. Once, back in DARPAnet days, one of the goals for an Internetwork was massively redundant routing, so that the network could "route around damage." While that sounds like an admirable goal, in practice, the problem is that such topology, in truly massive networks, is not very efficient; the routers spend undue amounts of time advertising changing routes, and keeping one another updated on low reliability links. So, since the mid-90s, Internet Service Providers and backbone organizations have been pursuing economies of scale, and reducing redundancy to operational limits. Essentially, the Internet, as it is currently built, is highly hierarchal, not massively parallel and redundant. Here's a Comcast traceroute from my node to nowhere, as of last Tuesday morning:
Microsoft Windows XP [Version 5.1.2600]
(C) Copyright 1985-2001 Microsoft Corp.

C:\Documents and Settings\Doobie>ipconfig /all

Windows IP Configuration
        Host Name . . . . . . . . . . . . : WinBook-M
        Primary Dns Suffix  . . . . . . . :
        Node Type . . . . . . . . . . . . : Mixed
        IP Routing Enabled. . . . . . . . : No
        WINS Proxy Enabled. . . . . . . . : No
        DNS Suffix Search List. . . . . . : hsd1.fl.comcast.net.

Ethernet adapter Local Area Connection:
        Connection-specific DNS Suffix  . : hsd1.fl.comcast.net.
        Description . . . . . . . . . . . : SiS 900 PCI Fast Ethernet Adapter
        Physical Address. . . . . . . . . : 00-40-D0-40-3F-01
        Dhcp Enabled. . . . . . . . . . . : Yes
        Autoconfiguration Enabled . . . . : Yes
        IP Address. . . . . . . . . . . . :
        Subnet Mask . . . . . . . . . . . :
        Default Gateway . . . . . . . . . :
        DHCP Server . . . . . . . . . . . :
        DNS Servers . . . . . . . . . . . :
        Lease Obtained. . . . . . . . . . : Friday, June 29, 2007 3:02:15 AM
        Lease Expires . . . . . . . . . . : Saturday, June 30, 2007 3:02:15 AM

C:\Documents and Settings\Doobie> tracert > c:\062907t2.txt

Tracing route to over a maximum of 30 hops

  1    <1 ms 1 ms 1 ms br>
  2     8 ms     8 ms     9 ms 
  3     8 ms     *        8 ms 
  4     *        8 ms     * 
  5     8 ms     9 ms     9 ms 
  6     *        *        *     Request timed out.
  7     8 ms     9 ms     9 ms 
  8     *        *        *     Request timed out.
  9     9 ms     9 ms     7 ms 
 10     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 11     8 ms     9 ms     7 ms 
 12     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 13    10 ms     7 ms     7 ms 
 14     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 15     8 ms     7 ms     8 ms 
 16     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 17     9 ms     9 ms     7 ms 
 18     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 19     9 ms     7 ms     8 ms 
 20     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 21     8 ms     9 ms     9 ms 
 22     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 23     9 ms    10 ms     7 ms 
 24     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 25     8 ms    10 ms     9 ms 
 26     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 27     9 ms     9 ms     7 ms 
 28     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 29     8 ms     9 ms     9 ms
 30     *        *        *     Request timed out.

Trace complete.
That's what a routing failure looks like. You can't even resolve DNS queries, because you can't reach DNS servers.

For more and more of us, even on a quiet Tuesday morning, it's all too easy to hit blockades and dead ends on the Information Superhighway. After a major societal upheaval event, you could count the public phone system and the Internet as we know it, as immediate casualties, as they have substantially proven to be in the most recent 2 major power blackout events in northeast North America.
posted by paulsc at 7:43 PM on July 1, 2007

to expand on Richter_x's notes...

I should've also mention there are many data centers around the country, primarily in major cities(aka 'backbones' of connectivity), that pride themselves on the ability to survive disaster conditions. Some of these data centers / bunkers are on par with the security of a military building, really impressive to us geeks ;). Big providers and service driven companies are all about uptime and physical security hence are wise to house equipment in these establishments.
posted by ronmexico at 7:46 PM on July 1, 2007

Without fairly ubiquitous electrical power, there will be no internet. Circuits that connect things need power for repeaters and other methods to cross large physical distance would work without localized power.

You might have satellite access for a while, but even they rely on specialized earth stations for control and connectivity.

As mentioned above, without the DNS system, not much would work right either, since you'd be reduced, best case, to direct IP addressing.

My suggestion would be that a new network, much like Fidonet, would spring up.

Basically, the internet would become non-instant. Requests for information would travel node to node by what ever method available. In concept, you can use ham or shortwave radio to transmit data from point to point. Or you can use a hard drive or flash drive physically moved between locations to pass the data requests and answers.

So you could imagine a request from London sent to New York via shortwave radio, moved through New York city via a rewired telephone system based on the 1930s era method. then using Ham radio to transmit to Chicago and then on to Kansas City. Then perhaps hand carried south to Dallas, and further Ham relayed to Santa Fe and then flown via small plane to Los Angeles, etc. A post-Armageddon Pony Express

Of course, the military networks would likely be running until they ran into trouble keeping their systems powered, most like by running of diesel fuel.
posted by Argyle at 7:55 PM on July 1, 2007

In Warday, a novel by Whitley Strieber (prior to his UFO quackery) and James Kunetk about a fictional WWIII, they describe how Russian nuclear weapons were detonated strategically in the atmosphere, the resulting continent wide EMPs which shut down most electronic equipment (including telecommunications and even electronic ignition systems in autos.) In the resulting aftermath people returned to snail mail as a more reliable means of communication.

Granted the book was written in 1984 (long before the ubiquity of the 'net) and the described impact of EMP is speculative at best...
posted by wfrgms at 7:57 PM on July 1, 2007

One more point, most non-military facilities that are hardened with generators, have much less than a weeks fuel to operate. Even top tier data centers wouldn't last more than a couple weeks without shore power or diesel refueling.
posted by Argyle at 7:58 PM on July 1, 2007

IAANE (I Am A Network Engineer) and I have to express extreme skepticism that the internet, even in rudimentary form, could survive nuclear war (which, I assume, is what you meant by Armageddon. It would certainly survive, for a period of time dictated by availabilty of power, a non-catastrophic mass death like plague. But back to Nuclear War).

Besides the already mentioned, not inconsequential problems created by EMPs, the dirty little secret of the Internet is its extreme dependency upon the telephone system. Sure, in this day and age you can get fiber to your doorstep (if you live in the right neighborhood) but by and large you, I, and everyone else relies on the POTS network to provide connectivity. And the POTS network was not designed for the type of redundancy and resiliency that we require in this scenario.

But what about the cable internet providers? While the current fiber backbone/coax last mile network in place is more robust than the POTS network, it is still not engineered to be uber-resilient in the face of catastrophe, and that's really what we're looking for.

So, connectivity at the last mile doesn't look good. Even if you could get your laptop running, the odds that you will have connectivity to the larger network are slim.

But what about the backbone connections? Surely they were designed to be robust?

Well, they were. And as long as they have power, they will (probably, caveat emptor, YMMV) remain up. Except for one problem. All of the really large, interdependent peering relationships that form the core of the Internet as we know it, exist in cities that would certainly be military targets and bombed to glass craters in any nuclear war. New York, DC, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh, on and on, the big pipes of the internet live in cities. And that's just domestically - when you start talking about connections to the world at large, the points of failure become even more singular, and even more likely to be located within a target zone.

Ok, but what about wireless? I cannot speak as authoritatively on this, not being an Electrical Engineer, but it is well known that nuclear detonation wreaks all sorts of havoc on the ionosphere, rendering long-range wireless communication a moot point. Not to mention the extreme weather patterns that would result as a consequence of global thermonuclear war (The only winning move is not to play.)
Sure, short range, highly directional wireless connectivity might still be functional, and it is not beyond supposition that if enough people and equipment survived, some sort of ad-hoc wireless solution might spring up. But I'm willing to bet that in any sort of catastrohpic global disaster, sheer survival and base needs will trump checking your email on the list of priorities for many, many years thereafter, and thus any attempt to restore such communcations will fail for reasons of time and manpower.

As Einstein is oft attributed as saying, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones".

In short, not a chance.
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:19 PM on July 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

no, no it would not
posted by caddis at 8:21 PM on July 1, 2007

I would think that, if anything Internet-like would survive after a major global disaster, it would be packet radio, as practised by amateur radio operatiors (ham radio). Long before the Internet was commercialized, and even longer before the idea of wireless computer networks were popularized, hams have been doing wireless packet-based networking. It's not fast, but it works, and could work without relying on infrastructure. Hams also take communications in an emergency very seriously, although I would imagine they'd be morse code and voice communications initially.
posted by Emanuel at 8:49 PM on July 1, 2007

No. The internet doesnt exist like that. The internet consists of fiber and copper capital owned and maintained by the phone companies. They are always working on keeping their capacities up under during normal everyday conditions. Toss in disaster and no one is routing anywhere anymore.

Peer to peer wifi on the other hand... Look at the OLPC wifi implementation on how to run a network without an infrastructure. Some good search terms are mesh and peer-to-peer wifi.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:59 PM on July 1, 2007

Actually, New Orleans did have Internet access after Katrina, through the absolutely redonkulous efforts of an ex-Special Ops guy who basically decided by sheer force of will that the net WOULD stay up.

There's an old Metafilter thread on this, but reading through the actual blog is highly recommended.

I think the best quote about it was:
You know those AskMe threads where someone asks what would you do in a zombie attack, and everyone starts getting excited and recommends different strategies and guns and such? Well, they're living the dream, baby.
Yeah. Not kidding.

So basically, what would happen is that whatever components of the net were still alive, would have obsessive guys working round the clock to get some sort of connectivity back.
posted by effugas at 9:02 PM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

So basically, what would happen is that whatever components of the net were still alive, would have obsessive guys working round the clock to get some sort of connectivity back.

You're assuming net connectivity would be of primary concern during Armageddon. I doubt this is a given. What would you use it for? I assume the key purpose would be to communicate globally - to see if London and Sydney have been nuked as well. In this case, you would probably have more hope trying to get the telephone working and call them (sat phone?) than trying to get the internet working so you can Skype them.

But then, there are a lot of obsessive WOW folks out there, I guess we would need to try and keep them happy lest they revolt.
posted by Jimbob at 9:13 PM on July 1, 2007

If you mean the actual battle of Armageddon, the angels will lead 200 million men to kill 1/3 of the population of earth. And 144,000 are already raptured. That means that over 2.5 billion people will be offline that night. World of Warcraft should be superfast!

Well, probably not the European & Asian Servers.

But seeing as all the grass will be on fire, 1/3 of all trees are gone... oh and the entire place has been flooded with blood and we've moved into the caves... I think we'd probably have other things to worry about. (And I was just about to level up too.)

The fact is, the predecessors of the internet were designed to be up after a nuclear attack. But they didn't plan for you to be able to use Wikipedia to add the destruction of the world entry. If the internet survived at all, it'd be the stuff left connecting the bunkers, not your cable modem.
posted by aristan at 9:30 PM on July 1, 2007

The protocols and the fiber aren't disappearing, but the data, servers and routers are probably going down fast. It'd be a pretty weak armageddon if it didn't take out the power grid and the ability to ship diesel to the backup generators (which most data centers would need every 3 days).

I agree that people could quickly cobble together some kind of packet radio/shortwave/solar internet. If they use the right kind of repeater stations, they might even make it a routing network instead of point-to-point. The bandwidth would be low and the latency high. Another possibility is Iridium's data connection at 2.4Kbps, but that's not much better than packet radio.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:35 PM on July 1, 2007

damn dirty ape-

I know the guy who runs Seattle Wireless; he lives a few blocks from me.

If I can't get reliable net connectivity from the founder of Seattle Wireless, the earliest and most active advocates of peer to peer wireless, the likelihood that P2P 2.4ghz would save everything is somewhat unlikely.
posted by effugas at 9:52 PM on July 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Emanuel beat me to it; I was about to recommend packet radio (run by independent hams) as the most likely version of connectivity to survive. Presuming some kind of disaster that killed off a lot of people but which did not really affect infrastructure -- a fast-moving plague or pandemic being the prime example -- whoever's left would stay on ham radio, using voice communications or Morse code or routing packets or whatever. If those individual hams each had a solar-powered system (and some do, at their homes, specifically to use in case of emergency), they could theoretically stay up for a long long time. But you'd need a critical mass of them left alive and powered to do any kind of even rudimentary packet switching. And we're talking dial-up speeds here, at best.

More importantly, as other people have noted, most of the servers/websites you'd want to visit on the Internet wouldn't be up, so there wouldn't be anywhere to go, so to speak.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:36 PM on July 1, 2007

I would suspect that it would only be up as long as the power grid was up,

Ditto - on the internets' Maslow hierarchy of needs this one's the base of the pyramid.

Pathogen scenario: the utilities employ armies of operators 24x7 making load balancing and other "traffic managment" decisions; how long would the grid stay up without it's human managers?

War scenario: power stations are prime military targets - the net, as a network of interconnected computers, would go down almost immediately.
posted by scheptech at 10:44 PM on July 1, 2007

This isn't directly related to your question but you might find this Straight Dope column interesting: When the zombies take over, how long till the electricity fails?

The estimate answering the question is most of the US and Canada would likely be without power within 24 hours of mass zombification (not quite the Armageddon but still not really a good situation). If that estimate is reasonable I'd guess the internet would fail considerably before that, based on the answers above it likely isn't as robust a system as the power grid even aside from needing the power grid to stay active.
posted by 6550 at 11:12 PM on July 1, 2007

If this happened, you could be pretty certain that rather than Internet traffic, ham / amateur radio traffic would go through the roof. All it takes is some power.. no pesky telcos or networks to rely on and you can be talking to almost anyone anywhere in the world.
posted by wackybrit at 12:57 AM on July 2, 2007

Depending on your survivors, don't forget to factor in how long it will take before everyone left begins to forget how to maintain the internet. Or anything else, for that matter. Once the engineers are dead, you're screwed.

The novel Idlewild deals with this very subject actually, if you're interested.
posted by mr_book at 5:34 AM on July 2, 2007

In this case, you would probably have more hope trying to get the telephone working and call them (sat phone?)...
Well, if I were lobbing missles (or particle-beam weapons!!!!) during Armageddon, I sure as hell target comsats, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:54 AM on July 2, 2007

In this case, you would probably have more hope trying to get the telephone working and call them (sat phone?)...
Well, if I were lobbing missiles (or particle-beam weapons!!!!) during Armageddon, I sure as hell target comsats, too.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:54 AM on July 2

You'd likely miss. Many of these satellites are in geostationary or eccentric molniya orbits way beyond the low earth orbit where the shuttle operates and further still from the "near space" reached by ICBMs at their height. Geostationary orbit is about 36,000km. ICBMs reach a max altitude of 1200km.

No military (that we know of) is in a position to launch enough multistage rockets to appreciably reduce the number of operating comsats. Better to target the ground stations (which are probably first -strike targets anyway).
posted by Pastabagel at 7:10 AM on July 2, 2007


Ditto to everyone mostly, but if your definition of "Internet" is loose enough to be satisfied by then yes. Also, rebuilding a low-bandwidth free space optical network would be the work of a few months, less if you could devote significant manpower to the task.
posted by Skorgu at 2:18 PM on July 2, 2007

You're assuming net connectivity would be of primary concern during Armageddon. I doubt this is a given. What would you use it for?

After such a catastrophic event, sharing information would be extremely important to survival. Depending on how things go you might need to know such things as how to grow food, who's around to trade with, what local wars are going on, and of course how to make bombs from common household materials. I think it's safe to say that people, at least in some places, would put a lot of effort to keeping their local part of the net running if at all possible.

See also Lucifer's Hammer for another novel that features this theme.
posted by sfenders at 6:33 PM on July 2, 2007

Pastabagel, most of the comsats are actually LEO, which hasn't got the latency issues of GSO. Excepting Iridium, I think they mostly do elliptical orbits so that they can concentrate coverage over land.

As for anti-satellite weapons, I think they'd be mostly focused on military and spy satellites. Depending on whether your Armageddon scenario gave a justification for the US to shoot down the civilian communications satellites, those networks might still survive. Just because China has the capability to destroy a satellite in a 500 mile orbit doesn't necessarily mean they have enough sat-killers to take out all the comsats.

If your Armageddon scenario involves solar flares, I think maybe it could take out all satellites and screw up the ionosphere enough to attenuate the range of shortwave, but maybe that would kill everyone on the planet as well.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:13 PM on July 2, 2007

While I think a lot of the analysis above is insightful, most answers are too simplified and all-encompassing. A better answer is that parts of the Internet might survive for a long while and the idea of the Internet may survive entirely and be newly realized in some other form.

Parts of the backbones are intended to be very robust, especially the parts that were initially military in origin. As someone has said, almost all of the "last mile" of the Internet, with some random exceptions, would disappear either immediately or shortly after the catastrophe. But some of the backbones would be in place and operating for a long while, either automatically as long as their was energy powering them and/or people motivated to maintain them. With essentially all of the last mile connectivity gone, though, getting on the surviving backbones would have limited utility.

However, with so much communications technology designed to operate easily with TCP/IP, combined with social convention and an amount of idealism, I think you'd see new ad hoc Internet infrastructure sprout up utilizing packet radio, improvised narrow-beam wireless, and a host of innovate hacks. Those would be connected to the surviving backbones, a few of which will then be maintained with almost religious fervor, and an Internet of sorts will continue to exist, albeit in a sort of reincarnation.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:49 PM on July 2, 2007

Pastabagel, most of the comsats are actually LEO, which hasn't got the latency issues of GSO. Excepting Iridium, I think they mostly do elliptical orbits so that they can concentrate coverage over land.

BrotherCaine, we appear to be talking about two different things. You are talking about the constellations which do operate in LEO, but they are less fault tolerant and rely more heavily on a satellite network to operate.

When someone said, 'comsat', I thought of communications satellites like the Galaxy and the Telstars, i.e. the broadcast satellites, which are indeed sitting way out there in geostationary orbit.

Also t he original poster may want to consider the military's jam-proof MILSTARs, which are also out there in geosynchronous orbit too, and which are designed specifically to provide data communications for precisely the scenario asked about. MILSTAR is no satellite phone. MILSTAR is the "when you absolutely positively have to get dialtone, data, and video at the end of the world" solution. It operates without a ground station and works in realtime, with a bandwidth of about 1.5Mbps.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:21 PM on July 2, 2007


posted by Skorgu at 5:18 PM on July 2 [+] [!]

All low earth orbit. The Chinese weapon reached 537 miles (865km) up. Galaxy 25, bringing you such fine programming as CBS and the Iran TV Network, is about 22,230 miles up (35,777 km). So unless you plan to shoot it down with a Proton or a Delta IV, it isn't going anywhere, armageddon or not.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:45 PM on July 2, 2007

Pastabagel, hmm... I mentioned the civilian constellations because I thought any idiot could run data through them, but I'm not sure how accessible the satellite broadcast and MILSTAR satellites are. However, you bring up a good point that without operators in the control centers they probably wouldn't survive for long.

That still leaves packet radio over short wave though.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:47 AM on July 3, 2007

NO AUTHOR FOUND NO BACKLINK FOUND " Depending on your survivors, don't forget to factor in how long it will take before everyone left begins to forget how to maintain the internet. Or anything else, for that matter. Once the engineers are dead, you're screwed.

"The novel Idlewild deals with this very subject actually, if you're interested."

The book A Canticle for Lebowitz deals with similar issues, although it's pre-Internet.
posted by concrete at 2:12 AM on July 3, 2007

Hey maybe we could use Silbo to solve the last mile access problem in the post telco era. Every city would have a solar powered shortwave networked computer every four miles in a cell pattern, you could whistle yourself a google map to the nearest lootable supermarket chain.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:01 PM on July 3, 2007

An exploration along a similar theme: New Scientist.
posted by oxford blue at 8:01 PM on July 3, 2007

I watched a documentary on the Internet, and they said that the redundancy and failover specified in the DARPA documents was not implemented because the telephone monopoly lobbyists shot down building a separate, switched digital network for continuity of government. The Internet wasn't built to spec.

There was a study a while back that figured only a few targeted attacks would be enough to knock out almost all the Internet.

I wish I could find sources for either of these.
posted by erikharmon at 11:39 AM on July 6, 2007

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