The Sun is Getting Scary

A few days ago, the sun exploded. Well, not entirely, or you would have noticed, but it set off an X-class flare, the “X” being the designation for the most powerful of these explosions, which produced lovely auroras but also disrupted some communications. Bothersome, you say, but hardly scary.

If you are not scared, then you have not heard of the Carrington Event.

On 1 September 1859, a flare erupted that was so powerful it was brighter than the sun itself, and could be seen on its surface. The skies of the third planet out from the sun soon erupted in auroras, which were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. In the northern latitudes, the auroras were bright enough to read by.

More importantly, as the magnetic field flowed through the atmosphere of the Earth, it generated electricity in telegraph lines.

telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.

A Super Solar Flare – NASA Science

The Carrington Event occurred a century and a half ago. Now, we have far, far more lines enmeshed in the atmosphere than the telegraph lines of 1859. All of which, if caught in the moving field  of an extreme flare, will flow with electric current. We will not like the result.

In 1972, a flare much smaller than that knocked out power across Illinois. In 1989, a flare left 6 million residents of Quebec powerless for 9 hours, when transmission lines generated their own current. The 1989 event melted the coils of multi-ton power transformers in New Jersey.

The flare of 2005, which damaged the satellite which took this picture. (Image from NASA)

Today we are far, far more dependent on electrical networks and information technologies vulnerable to extreme solar flares. In 2005, another solar flare disrupted the Global Positioning system for ten minutes. Ten minutes doesn’t sound like much, unless, say, you are on a GPS-guided commercial flight trying to land during those ten minutes.

In May of 1921, the sun popped off a flare larger than any of these,  yet still smaller than the Carrington Event. The flares of 2005, 1989, 1972, and 1921 were on the order of one to ten percent of the power of the Carrington Event.

If a Carrington Event happened while you were in the air, you might not want to land.

In 2008, The National Academies sponsored a workshop on the impact of severe space weather. The interconnectedness throughout North America of delivery systems for electricity have made them vulnerable to extreme solar flares. Very vulnerable. Frighteningly vulnerable.

The final report (at the link below) notes that immediate power losses could affect 130 million people.

Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures, with, for example, potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in about 12-24 hours; and immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply, and so on. …

Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report

Scared yet? The real problem would be turning the  power back on, because so many of those multi-ton transformers will have melted. According to the report, about 300 of them. And they cannot be repaired in the field; they have to be replaced. Oh, and the lead time for their manufacture is at least 12 months. Each.

But that won’t matter. The transportation system will have collapsed with the power grid, so we can’t get them to where we need them them anyway.

No electricity. No gas. No food. No water. No communication.

No way to put out the fires.

Scared yet? You should be. We are at the beginning of the 11 year cycle of increased solar activity? The X class flare of last week was followed 3 days later by an M-class flare.

Fast-growing sunspot complex 1161-1162 erupted on Feb. 18th, producing an M6.6-class solar flare. The almost-X category blast was one of the strongest flares in years and continued the week-long trend of high solar activity. NOAA forecasters estimate a 75% chance of more M-flares during the next 24 hours.

A repeat of the Carrington Event is unlikely, but if it does, we die.

Unless we prepare for it. Unless we strengthen our warning systems and prepare the grid to cope. It can be done, for a mere few billions of dollars. But there is not yet the political will to do so, because not enough people realize the utter catastrophe that a Carrington Event would cause.

Not enough people are scared. This is me, trying to scare as many people as I can. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oh, never mind. If it happens, you won’t be able to say much of anything.

This entry was posted in Astronomy, Disasters, Engineering, Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Sun is Getting Scary

  1. Pingback: The Other Side of the Sun is “Crackling With Flares” | Notes from The Pondonome

  2. Pingback: Notes from The Pondonome

  3. Pingback: The Sun Erupts | Notes from The Pondonome

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