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Prof. Disbrow spills the cosmic beans about big, bad scary solar flares
After last month’s “Warp Drive” column, I had hoped to write about something non-space related. Unfortunately, in the last week or so, one of the bigger science stories combined my favorite thing: space, with my least favorite thing: a doomsday headline. I’m sure you saw it: “Solar flare nearly destroyed Earth two years ago: NASA.”
Like most sensational headlines, there is a grain of truth in there. But really, not enough to justify a headline that says that our planet and everyone on it almost disappeared in a stream of hellfire. So, what did happen?
On July 23, 2012, the Sun spat out a flare (also known as a “coronal mass ejection,” or “CME”) that was, scientists think, larger and more powerful than the “Carrington” CME that hit the Earth back in 1859. (Richard Carrington was the scientist best known for observing and recording information about that storm. So the event was named after him. I’ll have more about the Carrington Event in just a bit.)
Make no mistake, this was a nasty event. It moved away from the Sun at 3,000 kilometers per second. (That’s not a misprint.) And it packed enough energy to fry pretty much every technological system on Earth. Fortunately, the spot where the flare erupted from was turned away from the Earth. It missed us completely.
Of course, if it had happened a week earlier, we would have been hit dead on. But if it had hit us, was it strong enough to “destroy” the Earth?
No. Absolutely not. Even as powerful as such a thing is, there’s no heat contained in a flare that reaches Earth. (At least not in the “fire” sense that we are accustomed to.) All of the energy in a typical solar flare is diffuse and unfocused and mainly comprised of protons and electrons that, normally, never make it to the Earth’s surface.
In fact, they mostly interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, where they are turned into the lovely Northern and Southern Lights that everyone loves so much.
So, “nearly destroyed Earth”? Totally false. But what COULD have happened?
Fortunately, this has actually happened before, so we have a pretty good idea how this would affect us. Remember the Carrington Event I mentioned earlier? Well, when that hit the Earth in 1859, humanity was just starting to become really interconnected and dependent on electrically-based technology.
For most of the world in 1859, the Carrington Event just meant that the Northern Lights were everywhere. Apparently, they were seen as far south as Tahiti. And, they were strong. There were reports from all over of people being woken up by the Lights and mistakenly assuming that dawn had broken.
While extra-strong Northern Lights sound pretty nice, in the more industrialized parts of the world, it was a little different. Telegraph lines were seen to spark, telegraph operators suffered shocks and more than one telegraph station actually caught fire. So, let’s extrapolate that Victorian-era damage into today’s world. While most satellites are hardened against flares, such a strong event would undoubtedly take out at least a few, leaving global communications a mess.
Much less powerful flares regularly take out a transformer or two every now and then. A Carrington-level event would take out hundreds, possibly thousands of transformers all over the world. (Think about how long it takes to get a couple dozen transformers fixed during a snow storm…Vast stretches of the world would be without power for a very long time. Possibly years.)
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each of those problems would lead to a cascade of other problems. (Goodbye, GPS and turn-by-turn directions! Adios, microwave! So long, Siri!) It would literally take us years, maybe decades, to rebuild our civilization as we know it today.
Of course, at this point you might be thinking, “That sounds like the Earth being destroyed to me!” Nope. The Earth would continue merrily on its way. It’s only our civilization that would be destroyed. So. There’s that.
What can we do? Sadly, not much. Unless we come up with a way to move the Earth out of the way, we are basically marking time until one of these things hits us. All we can really do is be aware of the potential threat, improve our technology to be resistant to these events and develop contingency plans for the inevitable.
Go and tell your electronics how much you love them—while you still can.