College College Society and the World College Space and Planetary Sciences TSS

Massive Solar Flares Could Wipe Out Global Infrastructure

Let’s talk about the Carrington Event.

Let’s talk about the Carrington Event. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably a normal person who doesn’t spend hours scrolling through weird scientific proceedings from the 1800s on Wikipedia. A Carrington Event is kind of like a practice for the end of times, an end of the world drill brought on by normal scientific phenomena. In other words, it’s an extremely powerful geomagnetic solar storm that happens when a solar coronal mass ejection (CME) hits the earth (1). The term “Carrington Event” was coined in 1859 when amateur astronomer Richard Carrington went to his private observatory on the morning of September 1st to look at the sun (1). He quickly noticed that there were huge dark spots covering the sun’s surface, and suddenly spotted “two patches of intensely bright and white light” coming from these sunspots (1). He brushed it off when the light vanished, but within the hour the effects of those fireballs were noticed all over the world.

That night, all telecommunication stopped working. No one could send telegraphs, and sparks coming from telegraph machines caught papers on fire and scared pedestrians (1). Additionally, the night sky was red and bright. Many people believed that the event was a sign of the world ending. One eyewitness from South Carolina even quoted the bible, saying “The eastern sky appeared of a blood red color. It seemed brightest exactly in the east, as though the full moon, or rather the sun, were about to rise. It extended almost to the zenith. The whole island was illuminated. The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire” (1).

Later, it was discovered that was not a scene from Revelations, but rather a solar flare with the power of ten billion atomic bombs that sent gas and subatomic particles flying toward earth. This caused to massive geomagnetic storms, making the solar storm of 1859 was the largest and most destructive in history. It was twice as big as any solar storm in 500 years (1).

The people of 1859 were upset that they couldn’t use telegraphs, so imagine what would happen if something like the Carrington Event happened in 2019. Hospitals could shut down for days, uncontrollable surges of electricity would harm people near electric transformers or power stations, cell reception and power grids would be lost, and GPS would stop working (2). Even the internet would be disrupted by the geomagnetic interferences (3).

“Humans in space would be in peril too,” NASA says. Astronauts would only have minutes to get inside a spacecraft before the energetic solar particles would harm them (2). In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences stated that an event like this in the 21st century would cause “extensive social and economic disruptions” and impact satellites, power grids, and all GPS systems (1). To put that into perspective, a satellite transaction occurs every time you buy gas with a credit card (3).

The price of recovery from an event like this would be between 1 to 2 trillion dollars, and the effects could take up to ten years to recover from (3). In addition, a 2007 NASA study found that the damages to satellites would cost anywhere from 30 to 40 billion dollars (2). Scientists believe that it would absolutely devastate global infrastructure, so let’s all hope that a massive solar flare doesn’t hit earth any time soon (2).


References

(1) Klein, Christopher. “A Perfect Solar Superstorm: The 1859 Carrington Event.” History, https://www.history.com/news/a-perfect-solar-superstorm-the-1859-carrington-event. Accessed 25 January 2019.

(2) Letzter, Rafi. “A Massive Solar Storm Could Wipe Out Almost All of Our Modern Technology — And We’d Have Just Hours to Prepare.” Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/massive-1859-solar-storm-telegraph-scientists-2016-9. Accessed 25 January 2019.

(3) Lovett, Richard A. “What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today?” National Geographic, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110302-solar-flares-sun-storms-earth-danger-carrington-event-science/. Accessed 25 January 2019.

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