Tonga’s volcano blast cut it off from the world. Here’s what it will take to get it reconnected.

Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai, an underwater volcano off the coast of Tonga, has erupted several times in the last 13 years, but the most recent, on January 15, was likely its most destructive. The blast has had global consequences: more than 6,000 miles away, waves caused by the eruption drowned two people in Peru.

But the effect of the volcanic blast on Tongans living closer to ground zero isn’t yet known, though it’s feared that the ensuing tsunami may have killed many people and displaced many more from their homes. That’s because Tonga has been suddenly cut off from the internet, making it that much harder to coordinate aid or rescue missions. In a highly interconnected world, Tonga is now completely dark, and it’s almost impossible to get word out. Getting the country back online is vital—but it could take weeks.

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Internet traffic plunged to near-nothing around 5:30 p.m. local time on January 15, according to data from web performance firm Cloudflare. That connection hasn’t yet been restored, says Doug Madory of Kentik, an internet observatory company, who has been monitoring the country’s web traffic.

The reason Tonga fell offline isn’t yet known for certain, but initial investigations have suggested that the undersea cable connecting its internet to the rest of the world has been destroyed by the blast.

“Tonga primarily uses a single subsea cable to connect to the internet,” says Madory. The Tonga Cable System runs 514 miles between Tonga and Fiji, bringing internet service to the two island nations. Previously, that connection has been backed up by a satellite internet connection. “I guess they’re not able to do that this time, because of some technical failure preventing them from being able to switch over,” says Madory. He believes that the wave resulting from the volcano explosion could have taken out the satellite dishes.

Jamaica-based mobile network operator Digicel, which owns a minority stake in the cable alongside the Tongan government, said in a statement: “All communication to the outside world in Tonga is affected due to damage.” Southern Cross Cable, a New Zealand–based company that runs cables interconnecting with the Tonga Cable System, believes there’s a possible break around 23 miles offshore. It’s also believed that the domestic subsea cable is broken around 30 miles from Tonga’s capital, Nukuʻalofa. Such breaks are usually found by sending light down the fiber-optic core of the cabling and calculating how long it takes for the signal to bounce back—which it does when interrupted, says Christian Kaufmann, vice president of network technology at content delivery network Akamai.

If that’s confirmed, it’s just about the worst possible news for Tonga’s connectivity. “It will be days—maybe weeks—before the cable is fixed,” says Madory.

The outage isn’t the first time that Tonga’s internet infrastructure has been plagued with problems. In January 2019, the country experienced a “near-total” internet blackout when an undersea cable was cut. Initial reports indicated that a magnetic storm and lightning may have damaged the connection—but a subsequent investigationfound that a Turkish-flagged ship dropping anchor had severed the line. Fixing the issue cost an estimated $200,000, and while it was being fixed, the island relied on satellite internet connections.

Those same satellite connections are likely to be the only savior for Tonga’s internet in the near term—but with unknown damage to them, the country could be in for a difficult period. “They were probably thinking: ‘Well, if the cable goes down, we have the satellites for resilience,’” says Madory. “If a volcano detonates right next to you and takes out both your cable and your satellite, there’s not much you can do.” Huge amounts of ash thrown up into the air by the eruption could also be affecting satellite connectivity, says Kaufmann.

Fixing the broken cable won’t be easy. Specialized shipping vessels tasked with fixing breakages—which occur every week somewhere around the world, albeit with less force than is likely to have resulted from the eruption—need to be sent to the site of the problem. One vessel that could help is the CS Resilience, currently off Papua New Guinea, nearly 3,000 miles away. It’s estimated that any vessel could take days or weeks to remedy the issue.

“There’s a priority over whose cable gets fixed first,” says Madory. “Countries pay a little premium to get fixed first.” Once one of these vessels arrives on scene, which itself could take days, it drops a hook to snag the cable that runs along the sea floor. The hooked cable, which when in the deep ocean can be as thin as a common garden hose, is then winched up onto the deck of the vessel, where technicians work to fix the break. “The cabling itself is not the most sturdy thing,” says Kaufmann. It’s then lowered gently back into the water. “That process hasn’t changed much in the 150 years or so that we’ve had submarine cables,” says Madory.

There are, of course, compounding factors that can complicate the process. Tonga is likely to be besieged by vessels looking to deliver aid to the country, which may mean internet cabling takes a back seat to saving lives, restoring power, and delivering vital food and water supplies. The precise location of the rupture can also make things complicated: generally, the further out the break is from shore, the deeper the cable—and the harder it is to reach and drag up from the floor. That’s before considering that the onshore power lines that help keep the connection online may well be damaged beyond easy repair. “Tonga is on an extremity of the internet,” says Madory. “Once you go out from the core of the internet, you’re just going to have fewer options.”

The internet outage shows how dependent the world’s internet connectivity can be on single points of failure. “It’s one of those stories that put the lie to the idea that the internet was designed to withstand nuclear wars,” says Alan Woodward, a professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey in the UK. “Chewing gum holds most of it together.” Woodward suggests that rare physical events such as volcanic explosions are difficult to design for, but countries should try to maintain redundancy through multiple undersea connections, and ideally ones that follow different routes so that a localized incident won’t affect multiple lines. 

Yet redundancy doesn’t come cheap—especially for a small nation of just over 100,000 people like Tonga. It’s also likely that with a massive eruption such as this one, the movement of the seabed would have caused a fissure in any secondary cable, even if it was laid on the other side of Tonga. 

“There’s a broader message around the resilience of infrastructure,” says Andrew Bennett, who analyzes internet policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “Although the UK or US isn’t going to be like Tonga, increasingly there are geopolitical tensions and debate[around] discussing things like undersea cables that are pushing us into a more fractious place. You don’t want to end up in a place where you have sovereign cables for the allies and other cables for everyone else.”

Bennett suggests two options to bridge the connectivity gap. One is rapid rollout of satellite internet—and the satellite constellations are being launched into space as we speak. The other is to devote more money to the problem. “If you look at resilient internet infrastructure as a public good, countries who can afford it should pay for it and provide it to others,” he says. Closing the global digital divide by 2030 would cost just 0.2% of the gross national income of OECD countries per year, according to the institute.

Given that the internet is increasingly seen as a fourth vital service, alongside heat, power, and water, such a long outage for 100,000 people is a major disaster—compounding the immediate physical effects of the eruption. And it highlights the fragility of certain parts of the internet, particularly outside the rich Western world. “The internet’s not necessarily crumbling at the core,” says Woodward. “But it’s always going to be a little frayed around the edges.”

Going bald? Lab-grown hair cells could be on the way

Biologists at several startups are applying the latest advances in genetic engineering to the age-old problem of baldness, creating new hair-forming cells that could restore a person’s ability to grow hair.

Some researchers tell MIT Technology Review they are using the techniques to grow human hair cells in their labs and even on animals. A startup called dNovo sent us a photograph of a mouse sprouting a dense clump of human hair—the result of a transplant of what the company says are human hair stem cells.

The company’s founder is Ernesto Lujan, a Stanford University–trained biologist. He says his company can produce the components of hair follicles by genetically “reprogramming” ordinary cells, like blood or fat cells. More work needs to be done, but Lujan is hopeful that the technology could eventually treat “the underlying cause of hair loss.”

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We’re born with all the hair follicles we’ll ever have—but aging, cancer, testosterone, bad genetic luck, even covid-19 can kill the stem cells inside them that make hair. Once these stem cells are gone, so is your hair. Lujan says his company can convert any cell directly into a hair stem cell by changing the patterns of genes active in it.

In biology, we “now understand cells as a ‘state’” rather than a fixed identity, says Lujan. “And we can push cells from one state to another.” 

Reprogramming cells

The chance of replacing hair is one corner in a wider exploration of whether reprogramming technology can defeat the symptoms of aging. In August, MIT Technology Review reported on a stealthy company, Altos Labs, that plans to explore whether people can be rejuvenated using reprogramming. Another startup, Conception, is trying to extend fertility by converting blood cells into human eggs.

A key breakthrough came in the early 2000s, when Japanese researchers hit on a simple formula to turn any type of tissue into powerful stem cells, similar to ones in an embryo. Imaginations ran wild. Scientists realized they could potentially manufacture limitless supplies of nearly any type of cell—say, nerves or heart muscle.

In practice, though, the formula for producing specific cell types can prove elusive, and then there’s the problem of getting lab-grown cells back into the body. So far, there have been only a few demonstrations of reprogramming as a way to treat patients. Researchers in Japan tried transplanting retina cells into blind people. Then, last November, a US company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, said it might have cured a man’s type 1 diabetes after an infusion of programmed beta cells, the kind that respond to insulin.

The concept startups are pursuing is to collect ordinary cells such as skin cells from patients and then convert these into hair-forming cells. In addition to dNovo, a company called Stemson (its name is a portmanteau of “stem cell” and “Samson”) has raised $22.5 million from funders including from the drug company AbbVie. Cofounder and CEO Geoff Hamilton says his company is transplanting reprogrammed cells onto the skin of mice and pigs to test the technology.

Both Hamilton and Lujan think there is a substantial market. About half of men undergo male-pattern baldness, some starting in their 20s. When women lose hair, it’s often a more general thinning, but it’s no less a blow to self-image.

These companies are bringing high-tech biology to an industry known for illusions. There are plenty of bogus claims about both hair-loss remedies and the potential of stem cells. “You’ve got to be aware of scam offerings,” Paul Knoepfler, a stem-cell biologist at UC Davis, wrote in November.

A close-up of a skin organoid that is covered with hair follicles.
JIYOON LEE AND KARL KOEHLER, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL

Tricky business

So is stem-cell technology going to cure baldness or become the next false hope? Hamilton, who was invited to give the keynote at this year’s Global Hair Loss Summit, says he tried to emphasize that the company still has plenty of research ahead of it. “We have seen so many [people] come in and say they have a solution. That has happened a lot in hair, and so I have to address that,” he says. “We’re trying to project to the world that we are real scientists and that it’s risky to the point I can’t guarantee it’s going to work.”

Right now, there are some approved drugs for hair loss, like Propecia and Rogaine, but they’re of limited use. Another procedure involves cutting strips of skin from someplace where a person still has hair and surgically transplanting those follicles onto a bald spot. Lujan says in the future, hair-forming cells grown in the lab could be added to a person’s head with a similar surgery.

“I think people will go pretty far to get their hair back. But at first it will be a bespoke process and very costly,” says Karl Koehler, a professor at Harvard University.

Hair follicles are surprisingly complicated organs that arise through the molecular crosstalk between several cell types. And Koehler says pictures of mice growing human hair aren’t new. “Anytime you see these images,” says Koehler, “there is always a trick, and some drawback to translating it to humans.”

Koehler’s lab makes hair shafts in an entirely different way—by growing organoids. Organoids are small blobs of cells that self-organize in a petri dish. Koehler says he originally was studying deafness cures and wanted to grow the hair-like cells of the inner ear. But his organoids ended up becoming skin instead, complete with hair follicles.

Koehler embraced the accident and now creates spherical skin organoids that grow for about 150 days, until they are around two millimeters across. The tube-like hair follicles are clearly visible; he says they are the equivalent of the downy hair that covers a fetus.

One surprise is that the organoids grow backwards, with the hairs pointing in. “You can see a beautiful architecture, although why they grow inside out is a big question,” says Koehler.

The Harvard lab uses a supply of reprogrammed cells established from a 30-year-old Japanese man. But it’s looking at cells from other donors to see if organoids could lead to hair with distinctive colors and textures. “There is absolutely demand for it,” says Koehler. “Cosmetics companies are interested. Their eyes light up when they see the organoids.”

In a further blow to the China Initiative, prosecutors move to dismiss a high-profile case

On January 14, federal prosecutors recommended that the US Department of Justice dismiss all three charges against MIT nanotechnology professor Gang Chen, ending a two-year ordeal stemming from accusations that he hid funding from Chinese entities on grant disclosure forms. 

Chen had pleaded not guilty to all charges, while his employer had indicated that the funding in question was for the university, rather than for Chen personally. MIT is paying his legal fees. The university declined to comment on a pending court case. (MIT Technology Review is funded by MIT, but is editorially independent.) 

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Chen was one of the most prominent scientists charged under the China Initiative, a federal effort launched in 2018 to counter economic espionage and national security threats from the People’s Republic of China. Despite these aims, an investigation by MIT Technology Review found that the China Initiative has increasingly focused on “research integrity” violations, like Chen’s, rather than on trade-secret theft. 

The motion to dismiss has yet to be filed, and final approval for dismissal rests with the judge. If the motion is approved, Chen’s would be the eighth research integrity case to be dismissed before trial, according to MIT Technology Review’s database of cases. An additional research integrity case, brought against University of Knoxville nanotechnologist Anming Hu, ended first in a mistrial and then a full acquittal. The only China Initiative research integrity case that has been successfully tried in front of a jury is that of Charles Lieber, who was found guilty of six charges of false statements and tax fraud last month. (See all research integrity cases here.)

Research integrity cases center on students and academics who have been accused of failing to fully disclose relationships with Chinese entities, primarily on grant or visa forms.

Public accusation

Chen’s problems began in January 2020, as he was returning to the United States from a university-backed trip to China with other MIT faculty and students. Detained and questioned at Boston Logan International Airport, he was released after his phone and computer were confiscated. 

A year later, Chen was arrested on suspicion of federal grant fraud and publicly accused of disloyalty to the US—a charge typically leveled in espionage cases, not grant fraud, as Chen’s defense team pointed out in its attempt to formally sanction the US Attorney’s Office for the statement. Chen was ultimately charged with three counts of wire fraud, false statements, and failure to file a report on a foreign bank account. 

But the heart of the case was whether the nanotechnologist had disclosed contracts, appointments, and awards from entities in the People’s Republic of China, including a Chinese talent program, and more than $19 million in funding from the Chinese government, while receiving federal grant funding from the Department of Energy. 

That question became less important when a Department of Energy official confirmed that grant requirements in 2017, when Chen submitted his application, had not stipulated that he must disclose posts in China, but that disclosure would not have affected his grants, as the Wall Street Journal first reported.

The money at the centerpiece of the fraud allegations—$25 million—was intended for MIT to support a new collaborative research center at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, rather than Chen individually. “While Professor Chen is its inaugural MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the Institute,” MIT president Rafael Reif explained in a letter to the MIT community last year.

Chen’s case received widespread attention because he is one of the most prominent scientists charged under the initiative. MIT faculty members wrote an open letter supporting the scholar that also reflected the broader concerns of the academic community about the criminalization of standard academic activity. “In many respects, the complaint against Gang Chen is a complaint against all of us, an affront to any citizen who values science and the scientific enterprise,” they wrote. 

What next?

With the charges against Chen all but certain to be dismissed, six more research integrity cases remain pending. Four are scheduled to go to trial this spring. Meanwhile, an increasing number of disparate critics, including scientific associations, civil rights organizations, lawmakers, and even former officials involved in shaping the program, have been calling for an end to the program, or at least to its targeting of academics. 

The Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government,” department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told MIT Technology Review in an email. “We anticipate completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks." He referred questions about Chen's case to the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, which has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, on January 4 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy published updated guidance on strengthening protections for American research and development against foreign interference, which included additional details on disclosure requirements for principal investigators.

As for Chen, “he is looking forward to resolving the criminal matter as soon as possible,” his attorney, Robert Fisher, told MIT Technology Review.

Additional reporting by Jess Aloe. 

The radical intervention that might save the “doomsday” glacier

In December, researchers reported that huge and growing cracks have formed in the eastern ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-size mass of ice that stretches 75 miles across western Antarctica.

They warned that the floating tongue of the glacier—which acts as a brace to prop up the Thwaites—could snap off into the ocean in as little as five years. That could trigger a chain reaction as more and more towering cliffs of ice are exposed and then fracture and collapse.

A complete loss of the so-called doomsday glacier could raise ocean levels by two feet—or as much as 10 feet if the collapse drags down surrounding glaciers with it, according to scientists with the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration. Either way, it would flood coastal cities around the world, threatening tens of millions of people.

All of which raises an urgent question: Is there anything we could do to stop it?

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Even if the world immediately halted the greenhouse-gas emissions driving climate change and warming the waters beneath the ice shelf, that wouldn’t do anything to thicken and restabilize the Thwaites’s critical buttress, says John Moore, a glaciologist and professor at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Finland.

“So the only way of preventing the collapse … is to physically stabilize the ice sheets,” he says.

That will require what is variously described as active conservation, radical adaptation, or glacier geoengineering.

Moore and others have laid out several ways that people could intervene to preserve key glaciers. Some of the schemes involve building artificial braces through polar megaprojects, or installing other structures that would nudge nature to restore existing ones. The basic idea is that a handful of engineering efforts at the source of the problem could significantly reduce the property damage and flooding dangers that basically every coastal city and low-lying island nation will face, as well as the costs of the adaptation projects required to minimize them.

If it works, it could potentially preserve crucial ice sheets for a few more centuries, buying time to cut emissions and stabilize the climate, the researchers say.

But there would be massive logistical, engineering, legal, and financial challenges. And it’s not yet clear how effective the interventions would be, or whether they could be done before some of the largest glaciers are lost.

Redirecting warming waters

In articles and papers published in 2018, Moore, Michael Wolovick of Princeton, and others laid out the possibility of preserving critical glaciers, including the Thwaites, through massive earth-moving projects. These would involve shipping in or dredging up large amounts of material to build up berms or artificial islands around or beneath key glaciers. The structures would support glaciers and ice shelves, block the warm, dense water layers at the bottom of the ocean that are melting them from below, or both.

More recently, they and researchers affiliated with the University of British Columbia have explored a more technical concept: constructing what they’ve dubbed “seabed anchored curtains.” These would be buoyant flexible sheets, made from geotextile material, that could hold back and redirect warm water.

The hope is that this proposal would be cheaper than the earlier ones, and that these curtains would stand up to iceberg collisions and could be removed if there were negative side effects. The researchers have modeled the use of these structures around three glaciers in Greenland, as well as the Thwaites and nearby Pine Island glaciers.

Thwaites glacier in 2001
The eastern ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier in 2001.
Thwaites' glacier in 2019
The eastern ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier in 2019.

If the curtains redirected enough warm water, the eastern ice shelf of the Thwaites could begin to thicken again and firmly reattach itself to the underwater formations that have supported it for millennia, Moore says.

“The idea is to return the system to its state around the early 20th century, when we know that warm water could not access the ice shelf as much as today,” he wrote in an email.

They’ve explored the costs and effects of strategically placing these structures in key channels where most of the warm water flows in, and of establishing a wider curtain farther out in the bay. The latter approach would cost on the order of $50 billion. That’s a big number, but it’s not even half what one proposed seawall around New York City would cost.

Researchers have floated other potential approaches as well, including placing reflective or insulating material over portions of glaciers; building fencing to retain snow that would otherwise blow into the ocean; and applying various techniques to dry up the bed beneath glaciers, eliminating water that acts as lubricant and thus slowing the glaciers’ movement.

Will it work?

Some scientists have criticized these ideas. Seven researchers submitted a response in Nature to Moore’s 2018 proposals, arguing that the concepts would be partial solutions at best, could in some cases inadvertently accelerate ice loss, and could pull attention and resources from efforts to eliminate the root of the problem: greenhouse-gas emissions.

The lead author, Twila Moon, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the efforts would be akin to plugging a couple of holes in a garden hose riddled with them.

And that’s if they worked at all. She argues that the field doesn’t  understand ice dynamics and other relevant factors well enough to be confident that these things will work, and the logistical challenges strike her as extreme given the difficulty of getting a single research vessel to Antarctica.

“Addressing the source of the problem means turning off that hose, and that is something that we understand,” she says. “We understand climate change; we understand the sources, and we understand how to reduce emissions.”

There would also be significant governance and legal obstacles, as Charles Corbett and Edward Parson, legal scholars at University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, noted in a forthcoming essay in Ecology Law Quarterly.

Notably, Antarctica is governed by a consortium of nations under the Antarctic Treaty System, and any one of the 29 voting members could veto such proposals. In addition, the Madrid Protocol strictly limits certain activities on and around Antarctica, including projects that would have major physical or environmental impacts.

Corbett and Parson stress that the obstacles aren’t insurmountable and that the issue could inspire needed updates to how these regions are governed amid the rising threat of climate change. But they also note: “It all raises the question of whether a country or coalition could drive the project forward with sufficient determination.”

Getting started

Moore and others have noted in earlier work that a “handful of ice streams and large glaciers” are expected to produce nearly all the sea-level rise over the next few centuries, so a few successful interventions could have a significant impact.

But Moore readily acknowledges that such efforts will face vast challenges. Much more work needs to be done to closely evaluate how the flow of warm water will be affected, how well the curtains will hold up over time, what sorts of environmental side effects could occur, and how the public will respond. And installing the curtains under the frigid, turbulent conditions near Antarctica would likely require high-powered icebreakers and the sorts of submersible equipment used for deep-sea oil and gas platforms.

As a next step, Moore hopes to begin conversations with communities in Greenland to seek their input on such ideas well ahead of any field research proposals. But the basic idea would be to start with small-scale tests in regions where it will be relatively easy to work, like Greenland or Alaska. The hope is the lessons and experience gained there would make it possible to move on to harder projects in harsher areas.

The Thwaites would be at the top rung of this “ladder of difficulty.” And the researchers have been operating on the assumption that it could take three decades to build the public support, raise the needed financing, sort out the governance challenges, and build up the skills necessary to undertake such a project there.

There’s a clear problem with that timeline, however: the latest research suggests that the critical eastern buttress may not even be there by the end of this decade.