By Teodor Teofilov
Most humans live in blissful ignorance about the world that they inhabit. Be it the biological construction of how life works, or the complex nature of financial markets, it is impossible for a single person to be well versed in every area. People can spend most of their life without knowing the engineering of their own car, let alone know the process of genetically modifying crops.
And that is normal. We all have different worries that impact our daily lives and tend to ignore large scale problems and events because they simply have no effect on us personally. The Scary Science series aims to show that some of our day-to-day issues can be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and that there are some truly terrifying scientific theories. Here we will examine theories that can end the world as we know it, making humanity extinct, and in some cases destroying all life on the planet, and there might be nothing we can do.
This series might cause sleepless nights of overthinking human insignificance and bring about existential crisis for everyone who reads it.
The first of the series explores the dangers that our own Sun poses to our way of life.
The Carrington event
On the morning of September 1, 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington watched from the private observatory attached to his country estate outside of London a cluster of unusual sunspots that began to emanate a blinding white light. Five minutes later it vanished, but the effects would be felt around the globe.
Before the sun rose the next day, the sky worldwide was lit with pulsating auroras. Meanwhile, the only electronics in widespread use at the time — the telegraph system — went haywire, generating sparks, shocking operators and even setting paper on fire. The atmospheric electricity was so great that telegrams could be sent even with the systems disconnected. The Earth was in the grip of a geomagnetic storm — a major disturbance of the planets magnetosphere that “occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth.”
The 1859 event was unprecedented, and unsurprisingly some mistook it as the end of the world. However, it was actually a massive solar flare — a magnetic explosion on our star that ejected coronal mass (plasma and magnetic field). The solar flare produced not only visible light but also a “mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops.” Nowadays we record flares using X-rays and radio waves, but prior to the Carrington even, no one knew they existed as they didn’t have the necessary tools to detect them.
Although there haven’t been any solar flares of the same magnitude since, astronomers say we might be due another. They are actually more concerned about this than asteroids or supervolcanoes — the latter being 90,000 times less likely to erupt.
Solar flares are part of space weather — the variable conditions on the sun and in space that can influence the performance of technology we use on Earth — and observing and predicting it is important, but as with all weather, there is no consensus between experts. The main source of space weather is our own star, and sudden bursts of plasma and magnetic field structures from the Sun’s atmosphere, called coronal mass ejections (CME) together with sudden bursts of radiation, or solar flares, all cause space weather effects on Earth.
Space weather can have a dire impact on our current technology, as it can produce electromagnetic fields that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupt power lines and can even cause wide-spread blackouts. Severe space weather produces also solar energetic particles, which can damage satellites that we use for commercial communications, global positioning, intelligence gathering and even planetary weather forecasting.
Blackouts happen all across the world for different reasons — be it storm interference, infrastructural issues or simply grid overload. However, on March 13, 1989, the entire province of Quebec, Canada had an electrical blackout that was different, because this one was caused by a solar storm.
Three days prior, astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun that had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. The scale of this CME was about the size of about 36 Earths and it ripped through space at 1.6 million kilometres per hour (one million miles per hour). The storm cloud rushed straight for our little blue planet. The solar flare that accompanied the burst caused short-wave radio interference — it also jammed radio signals from Radio Free Europe into the communist bloc.
It took only two days for the solar plasma to strike Earth’s magnetic field, which caused spectacular northern lights that could be seen as far as Florida and Cuba. In the early hours of March 13, the magnetic disturbance, that had created electrical currents in the ground beneath a large part of North America, found weaknesses in the electrical power grid of Quebec.
The entire region lost power and for the next 12 hours millions of people suddenly found themselves in the dark. Some woke to cold homes, others were stuck in elevators and businesses and schools were closed. This wasn’t a Quebec only problem, with hundreds of grid problems erupting across the U.S. that luckily didn’t result in a blackout.
The damage wasn’t limited to the surface as well. Some satellites suffered electronic malfunctions and tumbled out of control for several hours.
Today the sun is experiencing a solar minimum — the least magnetically active period of an 11-year cycle. During a solar maximum the Sun gives off more heat and is covered in sunspots. As these dark blotches on the surface of our star multiply, indicating magnetic upswells, CMEs become more frequent.
Anticipating the future
Experts predict that the new solar maximum will be around 2023-2026 and it is important that we don’t ignore the possible consequences of a massive CME hitting the Earth.
The devastation that another solar flare of the magnitude of the Carrington event would cost trillions of dollars. A geomagnetic storm produces electrical currents in conductive material on the ground, including through pipelines, communication cables, and power lines. These large, geomagnetically induced currents can overload transformers and lead to widespread blackouts as was the case in Quebec.
“We live in a cyber cocoon enveloping the Earth,” University of Colorado physicist Daniel Baker said at a 2011 geophysics meeting, according to National Geographic. “Imagine what the consequences might be.”
“Imagine large cities without power for a week, a month, or a year,” Baker said. “The losses could be $1 [trillion] to $2 trillion, and the effects could be felt for years.”
This conclusion is echoed by astrophysicist Avi Loeb at Harvard University.
“The sun is usually thought of as a friend and the source of life, but it could also be the opposite,” Loeb told New Scientist. “It just depends on circumstances.”
Not only do we have to worry about the current satellites we have orbiting our planet, which could trap us for centuries to not being able to explore the stars, but also all machines that depend on electricity. Our financial markets, nuclear power plants and the Internet will be damaged severely, and possibly irreparably.
For example, at the height of the Cold War on May 23, 1967, a solar flare disabled the U.S. Early Warning System and a nuclear strike protocol against the Soviet Union was initiated. Nuclear Armageddon was only averted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) newly established Solar Forecasting Center, which had detected a solar flare a few days prior.
Safeguarding against disaster
The backbone of the electrical grid are power transformers — they can increase voltage to transport power over large distances, or decrease it so it can enter our homes at safe levels. According to the Electric Power Research Group, large ones can take months to repair or rebuild, which would result in long-term blackouts.
The U.S. Department of Energy outlines the necessity for reserve transformers in a 2017 report to Congress that can be trucked throughout America if necessary, much like Federal Emergency Management Agency sets up temporary housing after disasters.
The International Association for Radio, Telecommunications and Electromagnetics cites that according to the Foundation for Resilient Societies, equipment to protect large power transformers costs about $350,000 per circuit and safeguarding the grid against solar storms and EMPs would cost between $10 billion and $30 billion, the foundation says.
There are many that are working on ways to protect our grid and technology from a CME, but the best way to protect from the potential damage is to forecast solar storms in advance and shut down the grid before it is struck and damage is caused.
The Department of Homeland Security has a Solar Storm Mitigation Project that aims to forecast “geo-magnetically inducted currents (GICs) in the ground, which can impact the electric grid and potentially cause permanent damage to critical grid components, such as high-voltage power transformers.”
There is also the Parker Solar Probe that was launched in 2018, which will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space weather events that can impact life on Earth. The probe will get within 6.5 million kilometers (4 million miles) of the sun’s surface and will be battered by heat and radiation like no other spacecraft before it.
Scientists are also looking at Earth’s own electrical conductivity to try and predict how power from space weather would spread underground.
Although there we are trying to protect from space weather a flare of the magnitude of the 1859 one would be a devastating event in other ways too, as it would damage the ozone layer, disrupt ecosystems and even mutate DNA. Our reliance on technology could mean there would be hundreds of thousands of deaths, as planes, hospital equipment, emergency services and other vital parts of our lives stop working.
…and worst of all we might lose the internet for a very long time.
For more information you can read the Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report