LONDON — Last time it happened, in 1859, the world’s telegraph machines sparked into life on their own—setting fires and electrocuting their operators. Next time the results could be truly devastating.
The next super solar storm could paralyze the world’s electricity supply, down communications, disrupt trains and planes, and halt navigation devices.
The British government now warns that we may only get 12 hours’ notice, and “much more needs to be done” to protect ourselves.
These powerful solar eruptions are almost impossible to accurately forecast, but their impact could be similar to the Electromagnetic Pulse weapons that were successfully tested by the U.S. Air Force earlier this year.
The Carrington Event of 1859 bombarded Earth with the most powerful solar flare-related X-rays and radiation storms on record as well as a Coronal Mass Ejection.
This ejection followed a violent eruption on the surface of the Sun and sent an immense cannonball of magnetized particles hurtling towards Earth at more than a million miles per hour.
In those days, telegraph operators were about the only people to notice anything beyond an unprecedented aurora borealis dancing in the skies as far south as Cuba.
The sudden shutdown of today’s interconnected global web of computers and electricity would bring us to our knees.
Every year the chance of one of these galactic cannonballs striking Earth is about 1 percent.
One hundred and fifty six years after the last one, our luck could run out any day.
Professor Alan Woodward, Department of Computing, University of Surrey, said the impact would be “devastating.”
“For that very reason the military have developed so-called Electromagnetic Pulse weapons that can shut down large areas without causing a great deal of physical damage. But what man can do, nature can do on a much larger scale,” he said.
“Without computers the modern world would simply cease to function. Life as we know it would grind to a halt. It is therefore scary to know that these computers are remarkably susceptible to electronic interference which can bring about this situation.”
According to the new document prepared by the Cabinet Office, satellites, electricity grids, and telephone communication would be among the worst affected.
The impact on the phones would be even worse in the U.S. where a relatively new phone system, which requires both GPS and power simultaneously, has been introduced.
“There is the potential [for] wide-ranging impacts. These include power loss, aviation disruption, communication loss, and disturbance to (or loss of) satellite systems,” the report said. “Interdependence of some systems means that infrastructure has become more vulnerable to its impacts in the last few decades.”
“Generally speaking, the faster the ejection, the greater the potential impacts. The Carrington event, for example, travelled to Earth in as little as 18 hours. It is therefore likely that our reasonable worst case scenario would only allow us 12 hours from observation to impact.”
The report says improvements in preparedness have been made in areas such as aviation and central government co-ordination. “However, more needs to be done especially in sectors which have had lower awareness of the risks posed by space weather, such as the rail and financial services sectors and local responders.”
Daniel Baker, co-author of the National Research Council’s report on solar-storm risks, said satellite communications would be knocked out and giant transformers could be blown out of the power grids by solar particles.
“Imagine large cities without power for a week, a month, or a year,” he said at a major geophysics summit in 2010. “The losses could be $1 to $2 trillion, and the effects could be felt for years.”