In 1859, English astronomer Richard Carrington was observing sunspots through his telescope as usual. Then something strange occurred: Carrington saw blinding light appear over the sunspots.
Less than 24 hours later, the skies turned green, purple and red with auroras. Even stranger was that the global telegraph system started to act up. Sparks flew out. Paper caught on fire. Operators disconnected the batteries but were still able to send telegraphs because of all the current going through the lines.
What Carrington had witnessed was a solar flare. Or, in layman’s terms, an explosion on the sun.
Solar flares release clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms into space. The surge of energetic particles can cause radiation and solar wind storms. Even more pressing for residents of earth is that a massive solar flare like the one Carrington saw can trigger geomagnetic storms which destroy electric grids.
Solar flares may seem like fluke cosmic events, but they actually happen quite frequently. In 1972, a solar flare destroyed long-distance telephone communication throughout the entire state of Illinois. In 1989, 6 million people lost all power for 9 hours after a solar flare in knocked out an electric station in Canada. The same surge also melted transformers in New Jersey. In 2005, the x-rays coming from a solar flare caused all GPS signals to go out for 10 minutes. Ten minutes may seem like a short period of time, but consider that airplanes use GPS to land. People on flights during a solar flare would be at risk.
One would think that we would take steps to protect against solar flares, but the scary truth is that we are more at risk now than ever.
Space Weather editor and former Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories Louis J. Lanzerotti warns that our dependency on electronics makes us more vulnerable to solar flares. When the 1859 Carrington solar flare occurred, streets were still lit by gas lamps. Households used candles and oil to light their homes. There were no phones, nevertheless cell phones.
If a solar flare of the scale of the 1859 event were to occur today, it would damage the more than 900 satellites in orbit. Electrical grids would be fried. Cell phone and internet networks would be taken out. Up to $2 trillion in damage would be done in the first year alone, reports the National Research Council. They report that it would take 4 to 10 years to recover from the damage.
Imagine going 4 to 10 years without electricity and mobile devices? Are you prepared? And what about the masses of people in your community? One can only guess as to the mass chaos which would ensue in a world of sudden total darkness.
There is no stopping a solar flare from occurring and it is not a matter of if a solar flare will occur, but when. In response, the Space Weather Prediction Station launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) which will watch for solar ejections. According to the NOAA website:
“DSCOVR will typically be able to provide 15 to 60 minute warning time before the surge of particles and magnetic field, known as a coronal mass ejection (or CME), associated with a geomagnetic storm reaches Earth. DSCOVR data will also be used to improve predictions of geomagnetic storm impact locations. Our national security and economic well-being, which depend on advanced technologies, are at risk without these advanced warnings.”
The question is whether 15 minutes of warning will really be enough to save electric grids from failure and keep the planet from going black.
We can’t prevent solar flares, nor can be sure that electric companies will be able to prevent the massive grid failure. However, there are steps that citizens can take to prepare for a major electrical and network failure. It starts with a survival mindset and goes beyond just steps like stockpiling food and water. The survival mindset involves learning how to be self-sufficient and survive without relying on the electric grid, institutional networks or government systems.