The Next Solar Storm Could Cripple Our Economy

In 1859, Richard C. Carrington, a British astronomer, observed and recorded a major geomagnetic solar storm that produced a white light flare. The next day, "auroras could be seen in tropical latitudes and telegraph systems all over the world, starting to shock telegraph operators, operating while unplugged, and igniting the telegraph paper," according to a recent public interest report by the Federation of American Scientists.

The author of the report, Robert Coker, a former aerospace engineer for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, says solar flares are known to have detrimental effects on satellite operations, GPS systems, hi-frequency airplane communications, navigation, and for good measure, the electrical power grid.

Coker calls sun flares and other electromagnetic disruptions space weather events. Minor events occur almost yearly, he says, resulting in GPS disruptions and rerouting of aircraft. More significant events occur once a decade, with extended local outages. But an event like the Carrington solar storm might occur once a century--and we're due to be hit.

The 20th century did suffer major storms. The first was in May 1921 when once again, the damage was limited to telegraph stations and underwater cables. The second, in 1989, had a different impact.
Dr. Sten Odenwald, a NASA astronomer, reported, "Within minutes, tangled magnetic forces on the sun had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. The storm cloud rushed out from the sun, straight towards Earth, at a million miles an hour. The solar flare that accompanied the outburst immediately caused short-wave radio interference, including the jamming of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia. It was thought that the signals had been jammed by the Kremlin, but it was only the sun acting up!" The event caused a complete blackout in the province of Quebec, lasting nine hours.

Think back to 1989--most of us were just learning about the internet; if we weren't scientists or academics and were "on it," we were fiddling with an early version of Mosaic, later called Netscape. Imagine what would happen to today if a solar event shut down the internet, online trading, the power grid itself. If the solar disruption came close to the size of the Carrington event, it could also cripple aviation and the electronics in the cars we drive every day. Commerce would halt, panic would take over, and the ensuing chaos would test the mettle of a society that is no longer united in spirit, let alone action.

Even more depressing, this entire calamity could take place without a warning, last for months or years, and cost $1 trillion or more Coker says. By now, you're thinking this sounds like a bad script for another Bruce Willis disaster film. Before you reach for your Xanax, there is hope that a consortium of global scientists, academicians, and industry leaders have developed a National Space Weather Strategy and Space Weather Action Plan that can mitigate the effects of a major solar storm. Let's just hope they don't follow the sun.


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