The Coming Solar Storm

If you thought the radi­a­tion dan­gers in Japan of late are a con­cern, then you may wish to con­sider the haz­ards posed by a thermo-nuclear reac­tor a mil­lion times larger than the earth – the sun. Apart from the threats of skin can­cer due to over-exposure, we may in the near future have to con­tend with solar storms that could rel­e­gate our very way of life to the annu­als of history.

Just before mid­day on Sep­tem­ber 1, 1859, the emi­nent British astronomer Richard Car­ring­ton observed an enor­mous solar flare on the sur­face of the sun. Erupt­ing from a sunspot aimed directly at the earth, a mas­sive cloud of mag­net­i­cally charged plasma, called a coro­nal mass ejec­tion (CME), swept 91 mil­lion miles (146 mil­lion km) between the sun and our planet in less than eigh­teen hours (it usu­ally takes three or four days).

As the super­charged par­ti­cles washed over our planet, they cre­ated the largest geo­mag­netic storm in recorded his­tory. Skies around the globe erupted in spec­tac­u­lar dis­plays of red, pur­ple and green auro­ras, so bright in some places that news­pa­pers could be read at mid­night. Auro­ras, usu­ally only seen at the poles, were even vis­i­ble from trop­i­cal lat­i­tudes over such places as Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Most alarm­ing was the solar storm’s impact on the only tech­nol­ogy vul­ner­a­ble to power surges at the time. The tele­graph sys­tem was dis­rupted world­wide, with some tele­graph oper­a­tors being shocked by elec­tri­cal dis­charges and, in some cases, tele­graph paper burst­ing into flames.

Ice core sam­ples, mea­sur­ing high-energy pro­ton radi­a­tion, reveal evi­dence that events of this mag­ni­tude occur approx­i­mately once every five hun­dred years, with lesser events occur­ring sev­eral times per cen­tury. Less severe storms have occurred in 1921 and 1960, when wide­spread radio dis­rup­tion was reported. In March, 1989 a mag­netic storm resulted in the Que­bec power-grid going down for 9 hours, leav­ing more than nine mil­lion Cana­di­ans with­out power.

While dam­age from the 1859 solar storm was not great, our mod­ern soci­ety is now sig­nif­i­cantly more vul­ner­a­ble to solar activ­ity since it is so heav­ily depen­dent on technology.

2012 marks the peak of the sun’s eleven-year solar cycle. Sci­en­tists at the National Cen­ter for Atmos­pheric Research (NCAR) have pre­dicted it could mark the most intense solar max­i­mum in 50 years. With the poten­tial to knock out power grids, fry satel­lites to a crisp and bring down global com­mu­ni­ca­tions and nav­i­ga­tions sys­tems, the com­ing solar storms could prove cat­a­clysmic to our technology-driven soci­ety. We would effec­tively be turn­ing back our lifestyle clock by one hun­dred years. Imag­ine the after­math of Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina, world­wide, for months or even years. With no bank­ing, elec­tric gas pumps, oil refiner­ies, trans­porta­tion, refrig­er­a­tion, news reports, sewage dis­posal, tap water, phone ser­vices, Inter­net or super­mar­ket gro­cery shop­ping, how long would it be before all hell broke loose on the streets? Three days with­out power and the natives get rest­less; three weeks and it’s Lord of the Flies all over again. It may be time to start bat­ten­ing the hatches.

More here

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