There are lots of calamities and disasters that occur on our planet such as major storms that can flood cities and earthquakes that can destroy infrastructures. But did you know that there’s an even bigger event that could hit us which can wipe out our technology? Yes, and that is a solar storm.
A solar storm is an atmospheric effect felt on Earth from certain events occurring on the Sun. It occurs when the Sun emits huge bursts of energy in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. When a solar storm happens, it sends a stream of electrical charges and magnetic fields toward the Earth with the speed of about three million miles per hour.
During a solar storm, there would be dazzling northern lights present in parts of the atmosphere which can be seen in places near the Arctic Circle. However, solar storms can disrupt satellites and various forms of electronic communication. It’s because solar flares come with the release of huge streams of charged plasma or coronal mass ejections. When these hit the Earth, it will cause geomagnetic storms that can disrupt satellites and electrical power grids.
Some scientists who study solar storms discovered that the frequency of solar flares seems to follow an 11-year solar cycle. There could be several solar storms each day at times of peak activity and on other times, there might be less than one per week.
The Solar Storm of 1859
The solar storm of 1859 happened on September 1 to 2, 1859 when a solar coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth’s magnetosphere and it was recorded as the most powerful geomagnetic storm in history. The solar storm of 1859 was also known as the Carrington Event and it occurred during solar cycle 10.
There were many sunspots that appeared on the Sun from August 28 to September 2, 1859. Then on August 29, there were southern auroras observed as far north as Queensland, Australia. On September 1, just before noon, English amateur astronomers named Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson have recorded the earliest observations of a solar flare. Their compiled independent reports were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Their drawings were also exhibited at the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in November 1859.
The solar flares were associated with a major CME that traveled straight toward the Earth. It took 17.6 hours to make the 150 million kilometer journey. It was believed that the high speed of that CME was due to a prior CME, and it can also be the cause of the large auroras observed on August 29 which cleared the way of ambient solar wind plasma for the Carrington event.
Carrington has suspected a solar-terrestrial connection because of the geomagnetic solar flare and a geomagnetic storm observed in the Kew Observatory magnetometer record the following day by Scottish physicist Balfour Stewart. There were worldwide reports on the effects of the geomagnetic storm of 1859 that were compiled and published by Elias Loomis, an American mathematician, and these support the observations of Carrington and Stewart.
When September 1 and 2, 1859 came, one of the largest recorded geomagnetic storms happened as recorded by ground-based magnetometers. There were auroras seen around the world. In fact, it was so bright that the glow has woken up gold miners who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. The aurora was visible even at lower latitudes which are very close to the equator like Colombia.
During the storms, all of the telegraph systems in Europe and North America failed and it even gave some telegraph operators electric shocks. The telegraph pylons threw sparks which set telegraph papers on fire, transmitted gibberish, and caused widespread communication outages. The light show and electromagnetic storm continued for two days, then faded.
What Would Happen if a Massive Solar Storm Hit the Earth Today?
The 1859 Carrington Event happened during the time when human civilization wasn’t yet uniquely vulnerable to the inescapable geomagnetic fury of the Sun. But back then, it was already technological chaos especially in terms of communication. Therefore, if a similar-scale solar storm were to hit Earth’s technological systems in the present time, what do you think would happen?
Of course, none of us can be certain about what would really happen or how bad things would be but if we compare it to what happened over a century and a half ago, there can be three things to worry about which are power outages, disruption of communications, and actual damage to wires and electronics.
Solar storms that are severe are like the EMP of a nuclear detonation. This means that there can be a multi-state power outage that can last for many hours and could cause major disruptions.
Disruption of Communications:
Today, some of the most common means of communication being used are GPS devices, radio, wireless, and wired communication. These could all be destroyed when a massive solar storm occurs, disabling us to pass or receive signals. This will not be good for emergency and utility services who will be racing to deal with problems.
Damage to Wires and Electronics:
There’s also a chance that our computers and other devices might experience glitches, but not permanent damage. The most vulnerable would be satellites because they do not have the protection of the atmosphere.
And the most serious risk of all is when the ground-based power lines are damaged. Damaging the world’s power grid is a serious disaster and it can disrupt foods transportation and storage, hospitals, fuel supplies, bank accounts, and other important services we need, which is the worst case scenario.
It’s quite unlikely but a solar storm as large as the Carrington event could do it. Back in March 1989, a severe but not Carrington-class solar storm hit Earth due to another coronal mass ejection from the Sun. There were intense auroras that were observed and some even thought that they were seeing hazy after-effects of a World War.
That was not a nuclear strike which disrupted radio signals and satellite communication systems but was instead the flow of charged particles getting caught up in Earth’s magnetic field lines. The most extreme results were felt in Quebec, Canada because their power grid went offline. This means that about six million people were instantly deprived of electricity. In some places, the outage only lasted for hours but for others, it took days for the power to come back on.
These kinds of scenario make some scientists worried, thinking that a doomsday-scale geomagnetic storm, like the Carrington Event, could send the world back to the Dark Ages. Because if a severe solar storm had affected Canada like that, it means that when a Carrington-class solar storm would hit Earth today, maybe the whole world’s technology would fall.
In June 2013, data from the Carrington Event were used by the researchers from Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the United States alone which is at $0.6 to 2.6 trillion.
But we do not have to worry that much because there is continuous solar monitoring being done by satellite and Earth-based telescopes and when scientists observe massive solar flares, they report them immediately, giving us time before the CMEs reach Earth.
Massive solar flares are unlikely to send us back to the stone age if that’s what you think, but we should also treat this risk like how we treat the risks being brought by major earthquakes, storms, and other natural disasters. It does not hurt to be prepared always.