KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the sun got ornery in 1859, American telegraph operators saw sparks fly.
A huge solar flare belched a cloud of charged particles into Earth’s path. But other than frying telegraph lines, the electromagnetic collision caused little stir in the world.
Nobody back then had yet switched on a decent light bulb, much less charged an iPhone.
Yet the sun hasn’t changed its ways, and that worries University of Kansas physicist Adrian Melott, among others. If the remnants of a similar solar flare struck the planet today?
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“Gee, I’d be without cable TV,” Melott deadpanned.
Without email too, some fear. No heating or cooling. No electric grid.
Satellite technology, it was nice knowing you.
This is the scenario rolling out from a growing network of scientists, policymakers and survivalists. Not quite doomsday, because life itself would continue, but a silent natural disaster that could unplug us from all we depend upon.
“It’s happened before, as recently as 1989,” said astrophysicist David Hathaway of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “That geomagnetic storm took out a big transformer in New Jersey.”
Still, it was no “Carrington event,” named for British astronomer Richard Carrington, who charted the 1859 solar burst.
Scientists today regard what happened in 1989 as a mere sun-to-Earth wake-up call, an electromagnetic puff, though strong enough to knock out power in Quebec and parts of the U.S. Northeast.
Hathaway said the Big One, Carrington-style, “could be catastrophic,” leaving much of North America without juice for months or years.
Years of blackout
A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences warned that a massive geomagnetic assault on satellites and interconnected power grids could result in a blackout from which the nation may need four to 10 years to recover.
Sound like Y2K?
“The Earth is in peril, and people love that,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “There is this certain human fascination with disaster.
“This one’s a little eccentric. … But given a world so interconnected and dependent on technology, with all our cellphones and computers, there’s some legitimate scientific concern about this.”
Odds of an electronics Armageddon anytime soon are far from clear.
Because solar storms occur regularly, with magnetic loops flaring and twisting around sunspots, government weather scientists say it’s inevitable that Earth will, on rare occasion, get bonked by what they call a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME.
A cloud of solar plasma, depending on the magnetic makeup of its electrons, could penetrate and shake the planet’s magnetic field, if the sun’s aim is just so.
Some say a super CME, capable of shorting out satellites around the globe and frying electric lines across a continent, might be a once-in-a-century event.
In May 2012, a U.S. Geological Survey report estimated a 6 percent chance of another Carrington event occurring in the next decade.
Still other researchers, such as NASA’s Hathaway, point out that for an event that big, the statistics are too flimsy to measure.
The uncertainty rests in the relatively brief span of time in which scientists have recorded a link between sunbursts and electromagnetic fluctuations on Earth, the first being Carrington’s observations on Sept. 1, 1859. Even then, the world knew about it only because an emerging technology went haywire.
“Telegraph systems, the Internet of that age,” said Daniel Baker, director of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Sparks shocked telegraph operators and set fire to their paper.
According to newspaper accounts, the Northern Lights could be viewed as far south as the Caribbean, the result of electrically charged particles from the sun entering Earth’s atmosphere. But beyond the aurora sightings and the telegraph-station fires, the CME of 1859 passed without much notice.
“Without technology being our antenna to collect the effects of a geomagnetic storm, we’d have no way of knowing” if one ever arrived, Baker said.
Nor could we know whether the Carrington event was as bad as sunstorms get.
Hints from 775 A.D.
Melott of KU, in a 2012 paper, proposed that material from a solar megaflare 10 times the strength of the Carrington kind bombarded this planet around the year 775. There just weren’t wires to get blown out.
There were cedar trees, however, that absorbed a heavy dose of something from outer space.
Japanese scientists discovered a baffling spike in carbon-14 deposits within tree rings dating to the eighth century. In a study published in the journal Nature, they floated the possibility of a supernova causing the deposits because a burst so powerful from the sun had never been recorded.
In Washington, D.C., concerns about an epic sunstorm have not drawn a lot of public attention. But they are forging unusual political alliances.
Policymakers on the right have long warned of terrorists detonating a nuclear device 20 miles above the United States, causing an “electromagnetic pulse,” or EMP, that could wreak havoc on electric grids in ways a sun-spawned CME can.
In hopes of preventing both brands of chaos, tea-party politicians have joined liberals such as U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to push legislation requiring utilities to harden the nation’s electric infrastructure.
Such a bill, called the GRID Act, passed the U.S. House in 2010 but never gained traction in the Senate.