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There’s nothing like a good old end of world scenario to get the mind ticking over. And there are lots of them to choose from. Some Christians might believe in the rapture, an end of times scenario which involves the good guys being scooped up to heaven and the rest of us facing hell on Earth. Science has other ideas. Some people tell us that by the year 2350, the Earth will be a kind of Waterworld, but that we could adjust. Then there’s the Super Volcano eruption and consequent nuclear winter. If that doesn’t happen, a superbug could get into our blood, and then we have the zombie apocalypse scenario. Then there’s the massive impact of a meteorite, and if it doesn’t hit the ground, it might hit the ocean and create a mega-tsunami. Today we’ll look at a less doomful, though also quite scary, scenario:
What is a solar storm? The description on the NASA website is a little longwinded, so we’ll try to summarize. It’s an eruption of energy from the solar surface. The solar surface is the outer shell of the sun, which we call the photosphere. Here you have solar activity, which could be flares, prominences, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections. You might have a sudden release of energy from the solar surface, which we can call a solar storm. NASA tells us, “Sometimes these particles make it all the way to the Earth and beyond by flowing along the Sun’s magnetic field into interplanetary space.” This can affect the Earth’s magnetic field, which could result in strange things happening, such as power grids going down. But what would happen if there was a MASSIVE solar storm?
The worst case scenario is the entire planet goes dark. But let’s rewind.
It’s thought the last time we got hit by a very big solar storm was in the 19th century. The year was 1859 to be exact, and this event, called the Carrington Event, is the biggest solar storm on record. A solar flare was first spotted in September that year by English astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson. Very bright auroras were seen all over the world, leading some people during the night in the USA to think that it was actually morning. An American newspaper described the event quite poetically. “The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested…the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.”
Sounds nice, huh? But if one happened now, in the age of technology and our reliance on electricity, the beautiful lights might not be greeted with such wonder. Speaking to Gizmodo, Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, “If we were hit by an extreme event today, it’d be very difficult to respond.” Scientists are actually quite worried at what would happen if we were to face a severe solar storm. Some of these storms are called X-class flares, and can produce energy equal to a billion hydrogen bombs. Still, sometimes all that this will result in is radio frequencies being disrupted. That’s why airlines keep in touch with the folks that keep an eye on the sun, so that flights can be grounded during a solar storm.
But that’s solar flares. There is a worse scenario, and that involves something called Coronal Mass Ejections. This is basically the sun vomiting up magnetized plasma into space. The good news is they take a while to reach Earth, possibly a few days, but the bad news is that they can potentially cause havoc. More good news is that observatories literally have their fingers on the sun’s pulse, so we’ll have time to prepare if a biggie comes our way. According to the experts after it hit NASA’s ACE satellite, located about a million miles from us down here, we will have just under an hour to prepare for a geomagnetic storm. This is where we lose power. These things have knocked out power grids in the past, as one did in Quebec in March, 1989. But that wasn’t anywhere near the power of the Carrington Event. Experts say if one of those happened again, it would be much worse than the Quebecoise (ke-be-kwaz) having their episode of Dallas being interrupted. The world could lose power. But how would that go down?
Well, for starters, we’d have no lights, and you all know how much trouble that can cause during the evening. It could get cold for those who rely on electrical heating. We’d of course have no Internet, and that alone would be devastating. But perhaps not as devastating as our sewage systems going down (that’s right, no toilets), or the perishable food all going bad. You can only imagine what might happen in the streets as all police communications go down and the less ethical kinds of people take advantage of the blackout. We might cast our minds back to the great Montreal ice storm of 1998. Millions of people lost power all over Quebec, water systems went down, ATMs went down, some TV channels went off the air, lights went out, alarm systems stopped working, unfortunately some folks froze to death, others were killed by giant falling ice stalactites, but for the most part, those Canadians got together and helped each other out. Let’s hope if the world lost power, we’d all support each other like they did.
It would cost around two trillion dollars, but thankfully it wouldn’t mean the end of power, just a hiatus. Fixing all the mess it made, researchers say, would take anywhere from four to 10 years. It’s thought that if this storm did happen, the blackout would probably last just a couple of days, so that’s a lot of cash for two days of darkness.
Some good news is that our bodies would not be affected. There would not be a Night of the Comet scenario in which people just get zapped when exposed in the streets. Anshu Singh, a Research Scholar at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, said, “They cannot harm our human bodies as long as we remain on the surface of Earth, where we’re protected by Earth’s blanket of atmosphere.” NASA has said though that astronauts could be in big trouble if not inside the spacecraft. It would cause $30-$70 billion dollars in damages to the NASA fleet.
It’s thought that these big events happen around every 500 years, and so we have some time until the next one. Although, some people say that we don’t really know, and one might happen any day.
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