Be Afraid of the Sun. Be Very Afraid
150 years ago this week something very interesting happened, up there, in the sky. Except for telegraph operators on the east coast, most people in the US did not know, or care, until the sky lit up in the evening. It was very pretty.
On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.
In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them. The New York Times ran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose.
“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this color were most abundant to the northeast and northwest of the zenith,” the Times wrote. “There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid. There was no figure the imagination could not find portrayed by these instantaneous flashes.”
It must have been cool.
If it happened today, most all of the world’s – all certainly this country’s – communications would shut down. The vast majority of the hardware we use to run civilizations today would be fried. Permanently. You may expect your TV, PC and even phone to not work. But your stove, if it is less that say, 10 years old, has a chip in it. Fried. Your car, if it’s not an antique, has one also. Several of them, in fact. So don’t expect it to start. And your alarm system at work? As Tony Soprano would say, fugeddaboudit. That’s okay. Tony’s much more interested in the bank. Oh yes, the back-up battery there will work, but not the alarm that’s wired to the communications grid.
Civilization would come back alright, should such an event occur tomorrow. None of this is stuff that we can’t rebuild or replace (or do without, mind you). But the effort would be slow, costly and probably uncomfortable. Some who otherwise might live, will die.
Late last year, the National Academies of Science put out a report on severe space weather events. If a storm even approaching 1859 levels were to happen again, they concluded the damage could range upwards of a $1 trillion, largely because of disruptions to the electrical grid.
What’s interesting to contemplate is that the solar storm that triggered the events of Sept 2, 1859 was not a singular event. Solar storms – solar flares that strike the earth – happen several times a year. Only the magnitude of this particular storm was unusual, and that’s only because mankind has not known how to – or even to – look for such things for very long. Solar storms are not conjecture based on models and derived hypotheses based on scant data. Indeed, they are a fact of nature.