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.