A spectacular explosion on the Sun that rocked the Earth 150 years ago this week could threaten the lives of tens of millions of people if it happened again today. The solar storm in September 1859 gave the Earth the mother of all buffetings. A worldwide aurora turned night into day.
But in today’s technology-dependent world, a similar event could bring down civilization in the biggest disaster ever to hit mankind.
More havoc would be wreaked than in an asteroid impact, say experts. And humans would face doom as power and communications grids around the globe were destroyed by the event, preventing the production and supply of food, water and medicines.
A British amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, 33, witnessed the start of the storm that battered the Earth 150 years ago. He was sketching a giant blotch on the sun called a sunspot from near Redhill, Surrey, on September 1 when two dazzling beads of light appeared above it. They were the first observed solar flares.
They faded within minutes. But the next eight days the night skies all around the globe were filled with dazzling red, green and purple auroras. They are usually just seen near the poles.
They were caused by a billion tons of highly charged gas, called plasma, that battered the Earth after racing 93 million miles from the Sun at more than five million miles an hour. Smaller eruptions have been photographed by spacecraft such NASA’s as Stereo.
Our planet’s natural shield, its magnetic field, protected humans from the deadly radiation in 1859 by deflecting it around the magnetic poles. But the massive electrical charge knocked out the Victorian equivalent of the internet, by sending telegraph systems haywire.
Operators shocked by the surge quickly disconnected batteries that powered the telegraph network. But they found it kept working thanks to the power from the aurora.
The next time a perfect solar storm on the same scale is aimed at Earth, the result will be devastating – and much more so for the developed world than for poor countries.
Eight minutes after the flare – called a coronal mass ejection or CME – happens, a pulse of X-rays will cause huge disruption to radio communications. Then, 18 to 36 hours later, we will feel the full impact of space weather with the arrival of superheated gas called plasma from the Sun.
Satellites on which we rely for communications will have their electronics fried, causing £40 billion damage in space. Astronauts on the space station or space tourists will die from massive doses of radiation.
Then power grids around the world will be destroyed as transformers melt, beyond repair. It will take many months or years to replace them. A NASA report says the blackouts would cause more than a trillion pounds worth of damage to the US economy alone.
British scientist Dr Stuart Clark is a solar expert who has written a gripping book about the 1859 solar storm and Richard Carrington called The Sun Kings. He told Skymania News: “These ejections from the Sun are huge. They can contain a billion tons of matter – smashed up atoms carrying vast quantities of electrical and magnetic energy – and that’s what can do the damage. It will short out satellites vital for communications and GPS, turning them into useless junk.
“The space station does not have sufficient shielding. A Carrington-sized flare would be unsurvivable.”
Dr Clark added: “The impact on power grids is the most dangerous effect. Another 1859-sized flare could take out power transformers right across the United States, at which point you have the biggest natural disaster possible. You can’t replace these transformers quickly. So you face weeks, months or potentially even years without proper power supplies.
“The ripple effect from that is colossal. Without power you can’t pump fuel so you can’t drive food to the supermarkets. You can’t pump water to homes or handle sewage. With no power, there is no communication, no way for the Government to pass on information or advice. And even if you think about back-up generators, in places like hospitals, the petrol they need is not going to last longer than a couple of days. Millions will die.
“You could see society collapse and a complete breakdown in law and order. Nowhere is safe from a Carrington-sized flare. This is much more threatening than an asteroid impact and it is much more likely than an asteroid.”
Dr Clark said that much less powerful space weather had already given an indication of the havoc that would be created. “In 1989 north-eastern Canada was knocked out by a solar storm. The region went from normal operations to a completely melted transformer in 90 seconds, cutting power to six million people. Repairs took months.
“Another series of storms battered the Earth around Halloween in 2003. At least two satellites were wrecked and 60 per cent of NASA satellites malfunctioned in some way.
“During that battering, they moved aircraft away from the magnetic poles. The main reason was to avoid communications blackouts, but they were also concerned about radiation levels in passenger jets.”
Scientists have found a tree-ring like record in the Arctic ice of how solar activity has affected Earth. They estimate that a solar event like that of 1859 happens twice in a thousand years. But there is nothing to say it won’t happen next week.
And Dr Clark says that a general decline in the sun’s level of activity is creating conditions like those around the time that Carrington observed his fantastic flare.
He said: “Hopefully, with space telescopes observing the Sun, it mean we won’t be taken by surprise and will see a storm coming. But get it wrong and we’ll have hardly any time to take action and the damage will be done.
“The individual can literally do nothing to protect himself apart from get in some tins of beans and candles. And the only thing we can do to protect power stations is to turn them off.
“If you see one of these things coming and decide it is big enough, turn the power off. That means people will die, there will be accidents, but it is the only sure fire way to proect the power stations.
“But there is no chain of command, no structure for deciding when to turn the power off. And we have no idea when disaster will strike.”
Editor’s note: I can highly recommend Stuart Clark’s book, The Sun Kings, as an astronomical thriller. Click here to buy it from Amazon in the USA, or on the following link to buy in the UK. It is available in hardback or paperback.
Picture: Dramatic activity on the Sun in September 1999, photographed by the SoHo spacecraft – but on nothing like the scale of 1 September 1859. (Credit: ESA/NASA).
• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.
Latest posts by Paul Sutherland (see all)
- 17 totally awesome facts about an eclipse of the Sun - 08/21/2017
- World gathers to watch total eclipse of the Sun cross the USA - 08/20/2017
- When can you see the Perseid meteor shower in 2017? - 08/13/2017