“A solar flare so epic it would knock out most modern technology.”
Say goodbye to your laptop. Say goodbye to your air conditioner. In fact, say goodbye to technology and electricity for a long, long time, because the earth has a roughly 12 percent chance of experiencing a massive solar storm within the next decade, says space physicist Pete Riley, senior scientist at Predictive Science in San Diego, California.
Such an event could potentially cause trillions of dollars’ worth of damage and take a decade to repair.
Luckily, such an extreme event is relatively rare. The last giant solar storm, the Carrington Event, which occurred more than 150 years ago, was the most powerful such event in recorded history.
On the morning of September 1, 1859, an enormous solar flare erupted from the sun’s surface, emitting a particle stream at the Earth traveling more than 4 million miles per hour.
During the event, named after astronomer Richard Carrington, telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators. “Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire. Some telegraph systems appeared to continue to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.” (Wikipedia)
At the same time, magnetic observatories recorded disturbances in the Earth’s field that literally went off the scale.
That there’s a greater than 10 percent chance of another Carrington-type event happening in the next 10 years was surprising to Riley, who published his scary estimate in Space Weather on 23 Feb 2012.
“Even if it’s off by a factor of two, that’s a much larger number than I thought,” said Riley.
During solar maximum, enormous solar flares occasionally burst outward from the sun, spewing a mass of charged particles out into space. When they hit the Earth’s atmosphere, those charged particles generate the undulating ribbons of light known as auroras.
The charged particles in auroras can wreak havoc on electrical grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.
During a geomagnetic storm in 1989, for instance, Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid collapsed within 90 seconds, leaving millions without power for up to nine hours.
The potential damage in the U.S. of a Carrington-type solar storm might be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in the first year alone, with full recovery taking an estimated four to 10 years, according to a 2008 report from the National Research Council.
“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.”
Transformer damage is the most likely outcome. “These multi-ton apparatus generally cannot be repaired in the field, and if damaged in this manner, they need to be replaced with new units, which have manufacture lead times of 12 months or more.”
That’s if they have the electricity available with which to manufacture them.
Meanwhile, an Earth Island article notes a much scarier reality than losing access to the Internet. “A 2011 Oak Ridge National Laboratory report warned of a 33 percent likelihood that a solar flare could lead to ‘long-term power loss’ over a nuclear reactor’s life. With 440 nuclear power plants in 30 countries, and 250 research reactors, there are nearly 700 potential Fukushimas waiting to be unleashed.”
Thanks to Alan Caruba and Steven Woodcock for these links