I looked at the sun with longing this morning, wondering when its rays would warm up the air. Monday, we had a snowstorm around Hanover, NH, of the kind that must have inspired T. S. Elliot's famous opening words from The Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month..."
Of course, the sun is doing its thing and it's really the weather patterns that are a bit wacky. But this is not about global warming or El Niño. It's about what happens when the sun doesn't do its thing as we hope it does. It's about what happens when the sun goes angry and blows giant magnetic storms that hurl colossal clouds of hot plasma into outer space, sometimes in our direction. The big ones can do a lot of damage, much more than what we are prepared to take — or even know about. Trying not to be very apocalyptic (but being so), a very big solar storm could disrupt the fabric of society as we know it. No joke.
The sun may look nice and cozy from under our protective atmosphere, but up close it's an inferno of churning hot plasma and gas. Mixed in are huge magnetic fields that look like gigantic rubber bands piercing into the solar interior like looping stitches. It's turbulent stuff, barely held together by gravity.
Once in a while, an instability will cause an explosive release of energy, most of it outside the visible spectrum. Particles are accelerated outwards at near the speed of light. We see a solar flare, with energies reaching some 150 billion megatons of TNT. For comparison, the most powerful H-bomb ever detonated, the Tsar bomba, reached 50 megatons of TNT, about 3,300 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. So, we are talking 3-billion-record-breaking H-bombs blowing up at the same time.
And that's not unusual. Such events happen every few days in the sun — speeding up to three a day during so-called solar maxima, periods of maximum solar activity that happen every 11 years.
Sometimes, flares are so violent that they are accompanied by Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The magnetic rubber bands snap and act like a slingshot, shooting enormous clouds of solar material into outer space. Depending on the intensity of the storm, the travel time to Earth may be from about 20 hours to a few days. Even if such giant clouds spread en route toward us, thus losing some of their punch, they still carry a large number of electrically charged particles (electrons, protons, ions) and radiation. And some bad stuff happens.
In 1859, a gigantic solar storm produced a CME that hit us bad. It was the largest recorded event of this nature, the famous Carrington event. (Richard Carrington was one of the two British astronomers that first identified the flare and other disruptions in the solar surface, such as an abnormal number of solar spots.) Auroras were observed as far north as Australia and Tahiti, and as far south as Hawaii and even Colombia, close to the equator. Telegraph lines all over Europe and North America failed, and some telegraph operators got shocked. Telegraph pylons threw sparks. Fortunately, society didn't rely heavily on electricity at the time. If this were to happen today, the story would have been quite different. Estimates place the damage at $0.6-2.6 trillion in the U.S. alone. Apart from the ensuing social chaos, of course.
When CMEs hit the outer fringes of the magnetic field that protects us (the same one that makes compasses work) they make it wobble. Wobbling magnetic fields kick electric particles around, causing electric currents in conductors. In 1859, the best conductors were the telegraph lines. Today, power grids cover the surface of the planet. The U.S. power grid runs at near capacity and wouldn't take the surcharge from the CME. The same with many others across the globe. If a Carrington-class or larger event were to hit, transformers would fail everywhere. Power at a global scale would be disrupted for weeks, months, possibly even longer.
This happened in Québec in 1989, when a relatively small geomagnetic storm damaged the Hydro-Québec electricity transmission system. Auroras from this storm could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida. Short-wave radio signals were disrupted. Some satellites failed to operate for hours. In the same year, another storm caused a halt in the Toronto stock market due to the crashing of three "fault-tolerant" disc drives.
Add to this the damage caused in low-orbit satellites due to the radiation and from the increased atmospheric drag, and things get even worse. GPS services would be disrupted, telecommunications compromised. Emergency services that rely on such channels of communication would be in disarray. Computer networks would also fail, even if individual machines would still possibly work while there was power in their batteries. (Magnetic storage devices would fail as well. Optical drives should be okay.)
Although Carrington-class events are relatively rare, one or two every 100 years on average, the potential for disaster is large enough that measures should be taken to increase protection. In 2012, a massive Carrington-class event just missed hitting the Earth, thanks to a fortuitous misalignment of directions due to the combination of Earth's orbit and the sun's own rotation.
Safeguards include a fleet of satellites in distant orbits that can monitor the solar weather. Some exist already, and that's how we know they are coming, usually when it's too late. Electric grids shouldn't work near capacity, transformers should be built to sustain the surcharges. A 2013 report by John Kappenman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission analyzes, in detail, the potential impacts on the U.S. power grid, offering safeguards to increase chances of surviving a future blow. Preparing is cheaper than fixing.
The danger exists and is palpable. A few years ago, I wrote a sci-fi screenplay with a friend, painting this sort of apocalyptic picture on steroids, a sort of Armageddon from the sun. The screenplay wasn't bought (or you would probably have heard about it somewhere), but the scenario stands as a disaster movie going real. Hopefully, awareness is growing so that we can avoid what would surely be a very bad chapter in the history of modern civilization. The sun wouldn't care either way.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.