A Look at the Devastating Impact a Solar Storm Could Have on Society
by Kurt Cobb
In late August 1859 the most severe solar storm ever witnessed began and lasted through the first few days of September. It produced vivid auroras in the night sky as far south as Cuba and was so bright campers in the Rocky Mountains got up in the middle of the night thinking daylight had arrived. During the storm telegraph operators felt as if some alien force had overtaken their equipment. Even disconnecting power to the wires failed to quiet their telegraphs. In some places the paper strip used to record the dots and dashes of Morse code caught fire because of the electrical surges coursing through the telegraph lines.
Today, the world we live in might be thought of as one big telegraph system composed of computer chips, telephone lines, fiber optics, cellphone towers, satellites, undersea cables and an electrical grid that supplies energy to the terrestrial parts of that system. An event as severe as the 1859 solar storm–called the Carrington Event after the respected British astronomer Richard Carrington who detected it as it developed–could cripple vast areas of the world, shutting down entire national grids not just for days, but possibly for months or years.
The simple fact is that most electrical systems and equipment including computers are not shielded to protect against such an event. One critical link, electrical transformers, would quickly be knocked out and would have to be replaced. Since few spare transformers are available, and it can take 12 months to build one, the world might have to wait years to fully recover–and that’s assuming it would still be possible to produce new transformers which, after all, take electricity to manufacture. There is also the problem of what state modern civilization might be in if it faced months or years without electricity. Critical systems that pump and purify water and treat sewage, for example, would no longer function.