Friday, August 1, 2014

Dodging a Solar Bullet

In just the last 20 or so years, we've become so technology-dependent that it's hard to imagine life without WiFi hot spots, GPS and smartphones that shape and inform our every action and interaction. What would happen if someone pulled the plug?

In July 2012, we almost got a chance to find out. A massive coronal ejection surged up from the surface of the sun, shooting a pulse of plasma straight into earth's path. Luckily, it was an indirect hit, because it would have knocked our entire satellite grid out of commission for months or years and fried every transformer on that side of the earth. In a world where people can't disengage from their phones long enough to eat dinner or drive to the corner, it would have been the equivalent of an electronics nuclear winter. 

We only have to look to the Carrington Event, a solar storm in 1859 that may not even have been as strong, to see how close we came to disaster. Throughout North America and Europe telegraphs, the nascent telecommunications system of the day, failed spectacularly, in some cases giving operators severe electric shocks and throwing sparks from pylons. Aurorae lit skies the world over to such an extent that gold miners in the Rockies, believing it was dawn, started making breakfast in the middle of the night. People in the northeastern U.S. were said to read newspapers by the Northern Lights, which dropped as far south as Hawaii and Cuba. Our atmosphere was so charged that even telegraphs that were unplugged from their power source continued to send and receive messages.

It's hard to even imagine the chaos and disruption an event of this magnitude inflict on our modern world. But why am I a little disappointed that it didn't actually happen?

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