If Abbott becomes PM on 7 September, chances are that the sun will rise again on the 8th, as it has since earth took its place in the solar system. That same sun, however, can do serious damage to our civilisation with effectively no warning.
In September of 1859, the entire Earth was engulfed in a gigantic cloud of seething gas, and a blood-red aurora erupted across the planet from the poles to the tropics. Around the world, telegraph systems crashed, machines burst into flames, and electric shocks rendered operators unconscious. Compasses and other sensitive instruments reeled as if struck by a massive magnetic fist. For the first time, people began to suspect that the Earth was not isolated from the rest of the universe. However, nobody knew what could have released such strange forces upon the Earth–nobody, that is, except the amateur English astronomer Richard Carrington.
Then in 2010, about a week after the election when we worried who was going to form government, we looked at the chances of a new Carrington event. The odds were given as 1 in 500 in any one year. That was a rough guess, given no other such events were known. Now according to Stuart Clark in the New Scientist an even stronger event was found to have happened back in 775AD. Later in the 13th century Richard of Wendover records that:
“Fiery and fearful signs were seen in the heavens after sunset; and serpents appeared in Sussex, as if they were sprung out of the ground, to the astonishment of all.”
The imprint was found in tree rings in Japan and Germany, indicating a global event. Given the technology of the time no great damage was done, but the strength has been calculated as at least 20 times greater than the Carrington event. David Eichler, a physicist from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, reckons a comet 40 to 80 kilometres across slamming into the sun at a speed of 600km per second could have done the job.
Researchers have been scouring the data for more such events and have indeed found one, in 992AD but only half the size of the flare of 775AD. Now they are looking at rocks brought back from the moon to find out how many times the sun has spat out such energy-laden particles in the last 4.6 billion years.
The question arises as to what disaster would be wrought on our civilisation if anything comparable happened again. Stuart Clark, a student of such matters, wrote in the most recent article:
A supremely powerful blast of radiation struck our atmosphere out of the blue, changing its composition for millennia. While the medieval world emerged unscathed, we wouldn’t be so lucky today. Our technology-reliant society would be devastated, satellites would fry, power stations would melt, and we would be without communications and power for years. We might never bounce back.
Back in 2009 Michael Brooks wrote in the New Scientist:
IT IS midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.
A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event – a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.
It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn’t create so profound a disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that.
If you read from @35 in our 2010 thread it seems the US Congress was moving to address the problem. I have no idea how far they got or whether any effective action was taken elsewhere. Stuart Clark’s current article suggests that we are still exposed.
One thing seems clear. The more decentralised our electricity system becomes the more secure we will be. But then decentralised electricity storage is the key.