Solar Flares could spell Doom

It is an anniversary that may go largely unnoticed, but it's one that could have serious implications for you, me and indeed all of Western Civilisation. Ignore the events of September 1st, 1859 at your peril!

On this date, something extraordinary was happening in the evening skies above Bristol. The sailors and dockers were looking up through the rigging of their boats at the sky. In the streets the grocers, bakers, butchers and dressmakers were all standing outside their shops, their eyes fixed on the heavens. They were all asking the same question: Why hasn't it gone dark?

Actually, it was a question that was hanging on the lips of people all over the country. Indeed, all over the world, night "time" came, night itself simply didn't come. Instead, the skies were lit up by the Northern Lights – the Aurora Borealis – which normally restrict themselves to the vicinity of the North Pole. Correspondingly, the skies of the southern hemisphere were lit by the Aurora Australis which normally restrict themselves to the vicinity of the South Pole.

Most people didn't realise what was happening at the time, but the world was being buffeted by a solar superstorm – a massive influx of electromagnetic energy, bursting out of the Sun in a gigantic malevolent flare. Solar flares are not unusual – the splurges of gas are emitted regularly by our Sun, but normally they do little more than cause the pretty swirls of light above the polar bears and penguins. But occasionally these flares develop into a solar storm – on average once every 11 years. Sometimes these storms are even bigger, and these powerful splurges are known as solar superstorms.

One of the few men who understood a little about what was happening that day in 1859 was one of Britain's top astronomers, Richard Carrington, who happened to be observing the Sun earlier that week. Using a filter, he was able to study the solar surface through his telescope, and he had been the first to see that something unusual was taking place. He saw a bright flash of light erupt from the Sun's surface and head straight towards his telescope.

The 50,000 mile-wide eddies of boiling hydrogen plasma erupted from the surface of the Sun in a billion-ton blob of highly charged gas, and careered through space towards Earth at speeds of up to a million miles per hour. Just 48 hours after Carrington first saw the eruption, it struck our planet, and the effects were extraordinary.

Brilliant aurorae lit the night skies right down to the tropics – their light being so brilliant it was possible to read a newspaper at midnight. Telegraph operators received severe shocks as solar-induced currents surged through the networks. It was as though the Earth had been immersed in a bath of electricity.

Such damage that occurred was easy to repair. In 1859 the world ran mostly on steam and muscle. Human civilisation did not depend on a gargantuan super-network of electric power and communications. But it does now. Electric power is modern society's cornerstone, the technology on which all other infrastructures and services depend.

Experts warn that the most likely date for another comparable cosmic event is in 2012, when we are due to experience another solar maximum – a peak of activity in the Sun. This is when a "superstorm" would most likely strike, probably around either the spring or autumn equinox, when the orientation of the Earth's magnetic field to the Sun makes us particularly vulnerable.

It's a subject that has kept Professor Guy Nason occupied for the past few months. "When you see how much money has been spent on preparing for swineflu, you have to wonder if governments are really taking the potential danger of a major electromagnetic storm at all seriously – it could have a drastic effect on us," he said.

"Our entire infrastructure is based on computers, satellites and electronic equipment these days. If they're all knocked out in one event, we would struggle to meet the task of fixing every computer on Earth. As a result of the lack of electricity supplies, we would very quickly find an absence of essential things like lighting and heating; and most importantly fresh water supplies along with waste management systems."

"The food supply chain could quickly grind to a halt. Telephone communications would cease to exist. The internet would crash in a major way. Television and radio would go off the air. Petrol supplies would seize up. In short, we could be sent back to the dark ages within weeks."

By David Clensy
Western Daily Press
Monday, August 31, 2009

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