It Came from Outer Space

Our own Sun could send us back to the Stone Age in the wink of an eye. #uncaringstar

Exhibit A on why “artist” is not my day job

As we go about our daily lives, stressing over which player to start in fantasy football, how many seats will flip in Congress every two years, and whether to like that weird Facebook post (what’s up with that anyway), we all sit on top of a ticking time bomb.  There are, at any given moment, many threats to the survival of our civilization.  But one in particular gets very little attention, and this is unfortunate, because it is one of the threats more likely to be realized in our lifetimes.

In the late summer of 1859, a storm ravaged the Earth.  Not a hurricane or a tornado, but a geomagnetic storm, caused by a flare from our Sun.  The flare itself was actually independently observed and recorded by two English astronomers – Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson.  The storm later came to be known as the Carrington Event.

Among the more widely told accounts from this event were those surrounding its effects on telegraph lines.  Some operators were literally shocked, and others were able to communicate across significant distances even when they unplugged their power.  There were other effects – auroras visible near the equator, sunless skies bright enough to read by, and of course a healthy dose of mass panic.

But back to the telegraph lines.  Electricity and magnetism tend to feed upon each other.  That is in fact how a ray of light travels through space.  The Sun, in addition to generating countless rays of light, has a powerful collection of magnetic fields, which can generate “explosions of light” known as solar flares.  Solar flares travel at the speed of light – eight minutes from the Sun to the Earth.  But they can also lead to Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which are composed of billions of tons of electrically charged particles.  A CME can typically take on the order of a day to reach the Earth, and of course since space is pretty vast, it won’t always hit us at all.  But when one does, it can cause a wide range of disruptions – including dangers to astronauts, communications issues for aircraft traveling over the poles, and if strong enough, impacts on our electrical grid.  This is possible because the electrically charged particles slam into Earth’s own magnetic field, which in turn can introduce massive electrical currents at the Earth’s surface.  And that is how the telegraph lines were so severely affected in 1859.

In March of 1989, there were widespread electrical outages in Quebec, resulting directly from a geomagnetic storm, albeit less severe than the Carrington Event.  But in July of 2012, a “Carrington class” solar event occurred; the CME simply missed us.

Why is all of this important?  Because of our frightening dependence on electrical power.  An event the size of what we observed in 1859 (which hit us) or 2012 (which missed us) would have similar effects to what happened in Quebec, but potentially with much higher damage and on a national or even global scale.  Costs have been estimated in the trillions, and recovery time in years.  But none of that strikes at the heart of the matter, which is how many things would simultaneously become unavailable at once: power in our homes and businesses, Internet infrastructure, hospitals, government institutions, banks (both actual banks and the infrastructure that connects financial institutions around the globe), communications (from damage to both ground and space assets), and, well, you get the picture.  It is not out of the question that society itself would break down on a global scale, and unfortunately the things that are designed to be most resilient to these types of situations are the core military systems that would enable a nuclear response to the chaos.  In other words, our Sun does something to the Earth that it has been doing every 500 years on average (from best we can tell), and we promptly extinguish ourselves.  Even if we didn’t take it that far, some studies have suggested 90% loss of life in the United States just from the starvation, disease, and societal collapse.

So are we screwed?  Certainly if we do nothing, the answer is a resounding yes.  This has happened innumerable times in the history of our planet, and it will happen again.  But there are things we can do to protect the grid.  Granted, those things will likely cost trillions of dollars.  But if you think this is only about dollars, you should probably re-read the previous paragraph.  And better yet, do your own Google search on this subject – don’t take my word for it (consider that general guidance on any posts you read here).  Multiple agencies in the government are studying this problem and how to solve it, but it’s unlikely most of us have ever given it much thought.  In my opinion, the matter needs to be treated with more urgency, and that will only come from a groundswell of support.

The alternative is that we might lose everything under the Sun.