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A Catastrophe We're Not Ready For: Solar Storms

The genius new product that lets you crack open eggs... Oh, hello I was just working on

a multi-million dollar lawsuit...

Imagine if electrical power suddenly went out for millions of people. And not

just for hours, but for months, and maybe even years. Throwing our world into chaos

and crippling everything from communication to food and water distribution. It sounds

like the start of a post-apocalyptic movie, but there's a real possibility

that it could happen. It's called a low- probability, high-consequence event. A

massive solar storm could knock out electrical power and wreak havoc on

nearly every aspect of modern life. But it's not something we're really

preparing for because for most of us, it just doesn't register as a big threat.

But here's the thing. It's happened before. If you were around on September

1st 1859, it would have been a pretty weird day. As the sun set, the night sky

lit up with a brilliant light show. These were Auroras. Electrically charged

particles from the Sun colliding with the Earth's atmosphere. And, they were so

bright in some parts of the world, you could read a newspaper outside in the

middle of the night. And you could even see these Aurora's as far south as

Hawaii, where they'd never been seen before. What little electronics we had back then,

well, they suddenly went haywire. Telegraph lines overloaded, threw

Sparks even lit Telegraph paper on fire. This was the solar storm of 1859, often

referred to as the Carrington Event. If if it happened today, well, it could knock

us back a hundred years to a pre- electrical age. So what exactly is a

solar storm? It's basically a catch-all term for when the Sun erupts a bunch of

mass and energy into space. It usually starts with sunspots, cooler

areas on the surface of the Sun that form over areas of intense magnetic

activity. It's these sunspots that are tied to an increase in phenomenon

known as solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (or CMEs for short). Solar flares are

energetic explosions they can blast enormous amounts of energy and particles

towards Earth. While a lot of it is deflected by the Earth's magnetic field

and atmosphere, solar flares can still interfere with communications and

navigation systems. But it's a large CME that can cause

real chaos for modern technology. It's an eruption of the sun's magnetized plasma

that is then carried to Earth by solar wind, where it can overwhelm the Earth's

magnetic field. All of this activity tends to peak about every 11 years or so.

A flurry of particularly bad solar flares and CMEs can cause real havoc to

our electrical systems, potentially throwing large parts of the world into

darkness. We've had glimpses of what this can do to modern technology. In 1989, a

CME much smaller than the Carrington Event hit Canada's province of Quebec,

damaging electrical transformers and leaving 3 million people without

electricity. And, we had a pretty big scare in 2012, when it looked like a CME on

the scale of the Carrington event might hit earth. (FOX News Coverage ..."the electric power grid would

be wiped out by the current, lights and computers, transportation, hospitals all

would go down... the study warns it would be a disaster far worse than anything we

have seen before") It ended up passing through Earth's orbit and missing the

Earth by a margin of 9 days. But had it hit us, we might still be picking up the

pieces years later. Geomagnetically induced

currents could have damaged hundreds of high-voltage electrical transformers all

at the same, time crippling our electrical grid. And it's not like we

keep a bunch of spare transformers stored away somewhere. It would take

months or years to fully repair and replace damaged infrastructure. And the

consequences of that? Far-reaching and devastating. The problem is, the cost of

protecting our electrical infrastructure from a Carrington level event would run

into the billions. But at least we'll see the next one coming. Our ability to

monitor the sun's activity is improving quickly we're now collecting data on

everything from solar wind to sun oscillations, to changes in the sun's

magnetic field. We will now have some warning before the next Carrington-level

Event happens. That might give us some time to prepare, kind of like we would

for a major hurricane. We could preemptively shut down electrical

systems or even large portions of the grid. But all this would take serious

coordination between government and private industry. But there's been some

progress on that too. Countries around the world are taking the threat more seriously.

There's a bill before US Congress to further improve solar storm observation

capability and to better coordinate the response of agencies if one hits. It's

not a matter of if but when the next one hits. It's been 150 years since the

Carrington Event. Maybe we can take some comfort in the fact that it might well

just be another 150 years until the next big one hits. That damn CNN...