House climate is an ever-growing risk to humanity. But it surely’s not the solar’s fault, it is ours
Space-age technologies have fundamentally changed the way we live. Avionics allow us to fly to other continents in a very short time. GNSS services allow us to navigate our cars on roads we have never driven before without a paper map. And some form of radio has become the backbone of both our entertainment and communications networks. So what happens when a solar storm disrupts all of this? That’s the focus of a new review by Natalia Buzulukova and Bruce Tsurutani, one of the world’s leading experts on space weather. They emphasize that we have not adequately prepared for a solar storm that could occur once in a millennium and could be coming soon.
That’s probably because there hasn’t been a storm like this before, but there has been a noticeably extreme one in near-modern history. In 1859, a series of large sunspots appeared on the Sun, and a little less than a day later, massive auroras appeared around the world. It is now known as the Carrington Event, after one of the scientists who documented it. And it could be a precursor to future extreme space weather events.
Telegraphs were the technological pinnacle of the age in 1859, and the Carrington Event destroyed the nascent technology. The induced current of ions in the atmosphere caused massive voltage spikes on telegraph lines. With such high induced voltages, it was inevitable that some of the wires would arc among themselves, and that is exactly what happened. The resulting arcing caused many fires along the telegraph system, including at some telegraph offices. Communications were also cut off for much of the day when the storm hit Earth.
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All of this destruction happened when the telegraph and electricity were just emerging as technologies. Now, with cell phone towers and massive high-voltage transformers, the risk of catastrophe is orders of magnitude greater.
However, ground-based systems are not the only ones vulnerable to the effects of space weather. Satellites are playing an increasingly important role in our lives, from providing internet connections for war-ravaged Ukrainians to allowing us to navigate downtown Chicago. Their location above the shelter of Earth’s atmosphere makes them particularly vulnerable to adverse space weather effects.
So what would happen today if we were hit by another solar storm the size of the Carrington event? It’s unclear how far the damage could go, but it would clearly be a disaster for Earth’s power and communications networks. Since these have far-reaching effects on society as a whole, there is a very high probability that the daily routines of at least the people who use these systems frequently will be massively disrupted for days, weeks or months.
UT interview with Dr. Benjamin Pope – an expert on solar flares.
Unfortunately, as the paper notes, we are not adequately prepared for this. The eventual occurrence of a solar flare is not an if; it is a when And it’s also a terrible time to start planning for a disaster like this, as it will be less than a day for a storm to do damage after we notice it.
Buzulukova and Tsurutani’s proposal is logical – scientists should outline the worst-case scenarios, what their probabilities are, and what impact they would have. Then we as a society should decide together what risk we take in the event of such a storm. Because one day it will happen. And we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Buzulukov & Tsurutani – Space Weather: From Solar Origins to Risks and Hazards Evolving Over Time
Subtitles – The sun with its silly smile could hurl mighty storms onto the earth
UT – During a solar flare, dark cavities move down toward the sun. Now we know why
Subtitles – What was the Carrington Event?
Artistic illustration of a space weather event.
Credit – NASA