By Timothy Ferris
September 1, 1859 Astronomer Richard Carrington was drawing sunspots – regions of intense magnetic activity on the sun’s surface – when two brilliant bursts of light suddenly appeared within one large group. Hours later Earth was hit by the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record.
No solar superstorm as powerful as the 1859 event has occurred since, so it is difficult to calculate what impact a comparable storm might have on today’s more wired world. A hint came when the Quebec blackout of March 13, 1989, when a solar storm roughly a third less powerful than the Carrington event knocked out the power grid serving more than six million customers in less than two minutes’ time. A Carrington-class storm could fry more transformers than the power companies keep stockpiled, leaving millions without light, potable water, sewage treatment, heating, air-conditioning, fuel, telephone service, or perishable food and medications during the months it would take to manufacture and install new transformers.
“We cannot predict what the sun will do more than a few days ahead of time,” laments Karel Schrijver of Lockheed Martin’s Solar and Astro-physics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. With a period of maximum solar activity expected to begin this year, space-weather centres are adding staff and hoping for the best. “We’re trying to understand how space weather percolates into society and just how bad it can get,” says Schrijver. “The morally right thing to do once you’ve identified a threat of this magnitude is to be prepared. It’s like earthquakes in San Francisco. Not preparing for it has intolerable consequences.”
National Geographic June 2012