Friday, 11 February 2011 00:00
Last week, both my cell phone and my computer bit the dust within 24 hours of each other. It’s all worked out, no permanent harm done, but it’s been an unexpected hassle replacing equipment and rebuilding a three or four day communications gap in my life. It was like my own personal little Carrington Event.
This actual event was named for Richard Carrington, one of Britain’s leading astronomers, who in 1859 gave us the most detailed descriptions and illustrations of a solar superstorm, the most powerful geomagnetic storm ever recorded.
On September 1, 1859, Carrington was recording observations of a massive group of spots on the surface of the sun when through his telescope he witnessed a massive flare, followed by a “Coronal Mass Ejection” or CME, in which massive plasma balls are ejected from the sun. Happens all the time on a small scale. The plasma travels through space at super-high velocity and sometimes Earth gets in the way. Occasionally, we can notice. In 1960, radios across the hemisphere were disrupted. In 1989, a solar storm caused a blackout across Quebec and NASA lost track of most of its satellites for a few days. In 1996, a large solar storm caused an aurora effect in the skies above the eastern United States.
Just before dawn on the day after Carrington saw what he saw through his telescope, the skies over the Northern Hemisphere all the way down to the Caribbean erupted in incredibly bright, pulsating red, purple and green light. It was so bright in the Rocky Mountains that miners woke up in their camps and started heading off to breakfast. People could read newspapers by the light. It was great fun, until telegraph systems around the northern world went haywire, burning out and shutting down for weeks.
Activity on the surface of the sun was running at a record high in the last half of the 20th century, but activity in the latest 11-year cycle has been at its lowest levels since the early 1900. Some scientists believe that sun activity is similar to earthquake activity. A lot of little quakes relieve pressure and dissipate energy, but energy builds up during quiet periods. Unfortunately, detailed scientific study of this kind of solar activity only dates back 161 years.
However, we do know that this period of activity is very similar to activity recorded in the years prior to Carrington. So much so that two major scientific organizations have issued reports warning of a possible danger. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that another Carrington Event could knock out over 300 major electrical transformers, cutting off power to 130 million Americans. That’s in the first ninety seconds after the radiation hits us. Last year, NASA, our space agency, warned that if the 1859 pattern is repeated, then a superstorm might occur in 2013. NASA and other national space agencies take the threat seriously enough that there’s a fleet of satellites constantly monitoring the sun.
I don’t have to paint a picture of how much more devastating such a solar super flare would be to our world compared to that of 1859. GPS devices, gasoline pumps, teller machines. It’s a real threat, but one which can be mitigated by preventive measures. Satellites can be taken offline at the first sign of trouble. Power and communication grids can be shielded against electromagnetic radiation. Some of this is happening.
On occasion, Long Island has been cut off. The snow storms of 1934 caused stores in some Long Island villages to run out of food. The severe gasoline shortage in 1943 left milk and vegetables rotting on Long Island farms. Long Island is no longer a bread basket. Our food comes the other way. We are dependent on the outside for everything.
A super flare is neither certain nor is it even likely. It’s just a possibility. But the possibility alone should encourage local decision makers at all levels of government to constantly rethink and reinvent disaster plans. That is what the taxes are for. We can’t plan or prepare for everything, Sometimes we can only guess. But it needs to be a good, educated guess.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: email@example.com