Could a solar storm send us back to the Stone Age?
In 1859, a powerful solar storm burned telegraph wires all across Europe and America and electrified the skies. As the sun awakens from a period of dormancy, it's worth remembering that a storm of that magnitude today could bring modernity to a sudden halt.
The Great Solar Storm of 1859 is now known in history as 'the Carrington flare' that burned telegraph wires all across Europe and America lighting the skies in many parts to the extent that miners awoke to start their day with breakfast in the middle of night. It was the largest single solar eruption from a sunspot in recorded solar observation history, described in Stuart Clark's book, The Sun Kings.
Within twenty-four hours, the Aurora Borealis electrified the skies glowing in red, green, and purple colors so bright that newspaper print appeared as if it were daylight in numerous locations throughout North America as far south as Cuba but normally keep to the cold Arctic Polar Regions. The lights resulted from the electromagnetic energy fields created by the solar wind plasma colliding with the Earth's upper magnetosphere on a significant larger planetary scale, as told in Clark's 189-page book published in 2007.
The 1859 solar event was disconcerting as telegraph systems worldwide went haywire for several hours. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when the telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to transmit. Even simple magnetic compasses ceased to point north for hours.
Society of 1859 did not notice the solar storm the way it would today. The telegraph signal system of the Morse code was only 15-years old. There was no satellite TV feeds, no automated teller machines, no Internet, no cellular telephones, no iPads, no major electric power grids existing, and no GPS satellite navigation systems. There were no modern telecommunications disruptions; none of any significance had yet manifested into existence - save the telegraph.
Fast-forward one hundred and fifty three years to late 2012 or 2013 . A globalized world is extremely dependent upon electronic communications to operate banking, communications, health care, computers, transportation systems, and a massive electric grid serving billions of people. A super solar flare on the scale of the one in 1859 could shut down modernity for days, weeks, perhaps months depending on the size of the white solar flare eruption from within a sunspot. One could equate such a possible episode as a Cosmic Katrina-like event on a nearly global scale happening in say less than twenty-four hours and possibly affecting millions of people.
A giant solar storm is expected in the range of every one-to-five hundred years but scientists today have no means to predict them only observe them hours before the electric charge hits the upper atmosphere of Earth. There may be sufficient time to power-down a few hundred of the orbiting satellites but electric power would probably be lost and the hard-drives of computers and servers may crash without hardened back-ups somewhere underground or otherwise properly shielded from the magnetic field.
Jack Kennedy blogs at Spaceports.