What would happen if today’s world faced the magnitude of the 1859 Carrington Event G5 or greater geomagnetic storm, history’s most intense solar storm? Back then, vibrant auroras lit up the sky, and telegraph equipment caught fire. Imagine the implications for our modern, tech-reliant society.
What would a Carrington Event G5 or greater geomagnetic storm do today? A Carrington event could disrupt global technologies, compromising the global positioning system, hampering satellite communications, and shutting down power grids. Given these potential impacts, emergency preparedness and preventive measures are imperative.
As we delve deeper into what such an occurrence would mean for our modern world, it becomes clear how critical emergency preparedness and preventive measures truly are.
What a Carrington Event Would Do Today
- Cause Excessive Energy on Earth Enough to Destroy the Power Grid
A 2013 study by Lloyd’s of London indicated that a Carrington-like event could precipitate widespread electrical outages, potentially resulting in an estimated $2.6 trillion in revenue losses. The grave threat of extensive damage to the power grid looms large, with the world potentially facing prolonged power outages that could last years.
Solar flares, coronal mass ejections, CME’s or geomagnetic storms, and radiation storms often occur simultaneously, which produce elevated levels of energetic particles on earth.
Geomagnetic storms are a natural form of electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs, that can sut down or damage electric power grids, resulting in large-scale blackouts.
Solar flares can inflict severe harm on large power transformers designed to handle extra-high voltage. Given the exorbitant costs associated with large power transformers, replacing them is challenging and could take years. Long-lasting damage to electrical power systems and undersea cables could be devastating for society.
With the incapacitation of these critical components, a myriad of sectors that depend on electricity–including emergency medical care, banking, financial markets, business transactions, and telecommunications would come to a standstill.
The simultaneous power disruption across vast regions would trigger a domino effect of crises. Food production would be severely hampered, and the transportation of essential goods would stall.
If gas station fuel pumps are down, how are you going to transport anything? If there is no water because the power grid and the municipal water pumps are not working, how are you going to irrigate and grow food? How are you going to get water for people? What if this goes on for years?
Vehicles would be rendered inoperative due to a lack of fuel, as fuel pumps rely on electric power. Sewage treatment systems would shut down, and flood defenses would become ineffective. It would be a cascading series of calamities.
- Affect Artificial Satellites and the Global Positioning Systems
Artificial Satellites are used as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and many forms of communication and weather forecasting on earth. Artificial satellites stand as one of humanity’s most remarkable inventions. Thanks to GPS, navigating the labyrinth of global roads has become second nature, with our phones and cars guiding us seamlessly to our desired destinations.
GPS is a sophisticated navigation system that relies on data from 24 satellites circling the Earth. It offers navigation, positioning, and timing controls. While many utilize GPS primarily for navigation and positioning, few are aware of its crucial timing component.
GPS is capable of obtaining and maintaining highly accurate time, synchronized with Coordinated Universal Time, anywhere on the planet. This timing functionality plays a pivotal role in many areas of our lives, influencing everything from financial transactions to the operation of the power grid.
Should a G5 or greater geomagnetic storm incapacitate GPS, or global communication satellites the ramifications would be far-reaching, even impacting basic utilities. For instance, conducting transactions with credit cards could become unfeasible.
Solar flares can distort the atmosphere, altering the trajectory of radio signals emitted by satellites. An illustrative example occurred in 2003 with the “Halloween Storm,” which threw the GPS off course. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration was left without GPS navigational guidance for over 36 hours.
- Cause an Internet Apocalypse
Should a storm on the scale of the Carrington event strike today, the internet would be the first major technological system to bear the brunt. Due to possible wide spread power grid outages, millions of individuals and businesses could find themselves offline for an extended period . A mere hour of internet disruption can lead to billions in losses.
In the United States alone, the estimated damage from such an event could range between $0.6 and $2.6 trillion. Given that our modern society is so deeply intertwined with internet connectivity, its loss would be akin to halting the world abruptly. The resulting chaos could be more overwhelming and cause widespread panic.
Scientists Don’t Know What Will Happen From a Geomagnetic Storm as Powerful as The Carrington Event.
While solar events like CMEs are a given, the consequences they can bring depend on their magnitude. For instance, the geomagnetic storm of 1859 Carrington Event had relatively minor repercussions due to the date in history. However, in today’s technologically advanced society, a similar event could have wide-reaching and profound consequences.
Scientists can only speculate on the repercussions of such an occurrence on the earth today. According to the United States 2019, National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan:
In addition to their direct effects on critical infrastructure, extreme space weather events can result in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare, finance, agriculture, and transportation.United States National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan 2019
Evidence shows that Earth narrowly missed another such solar storm in July 2012. Observations highlighted the close resemblances between the two events, and it was estimated that the 2012 storm could have led to damages surpassing $2 trillion.
Fortunately, this storm missed Earth. Yet, luck can’t always be relied upon, and the likelihood of Earth experiencing a direct hit from a future storm is cause for concern.
The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that solar storms of significant magnitude strike Earth approximately once every 500 years, or even more frequently. This is based on tree rings and glacial ice cores.
Thus, the question isn’t if such a storm will hit, but rather when the next one will. Both NASA and NOAA actively monitor space weather and have identified the ongoing phase as a Solar Cycle 25. They anticipate its peak activity around 2025.
Why It Was Named the Carrington Event
Richard Carrington was an astronomer and scientist who studied celestial bodies and phenomena beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Although historically described as an amateur astronomer, his prominence in the field surged when he documented the largest known solar storm.
Carrington’s private observatory was conveniently attached to his country estate on the outskirts of London. All he needed to do was open the dome’s shutter for an unobstructed view of the sky, which was typically blue.
However, on the morning of September 1, 1859, the sky presented a different tableau. When Carrington aimed his brass telescope at the sun, he was sketching sunspots and observed a cluster of dark spots mottling its surface. Suddenly, these spots erupted, releasing two intensely bright fireballs source.
Though Carrington keenly observed the phenomena, the fireballs vanished from his view, only for their effects to manifest in different parts of the world.
While many astronomers noted the unexpected burst of light that day, Richard Carrington was the first to correlate the solar activities with the disturbances observed on Earth.
The Nature of Geomagnetic Storms or Solar Flares
Recommended Reading: Are All CMEs A Threat To Earth? and What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?
Eruptions, like the one responsible for the 1859 solar flare, are natural occurrences that are part of the solar cycle. This cycle spans an eleven-year period during which the sun’s activities ebb and flow.
At the culmination of these eleven years, many flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) typically manifest around the sun. However, the exact magnitude of these CMEs and flares is unpredictable.
The Anatomy of a Geomagnetic Storm: Why It Is Critical Knowledge
In 1859, astronomers possessed a limited understanding of the events and activities related to the sun. Their equipment, such as telescopes, was less advanced and relied heavily on a keen observer to identify noteworthy phenomena.
Perhaps with more knowledge or superior equipment, they could have discerned the signs of the solar storm that appeared roughly 18 hours prior to its impact on Earth. As it was, English astronomers merely observed anomalies around the sun. Richard Carrington, for instance, detailed the appearance of dark sunspots that disappeared within five minutes.
Another astronomer, Richard Hodgson, remarked on the presence of an unusually bright star near the sun. Over at England’s Kew Observatory, the needles of compasses exhibited subtle fluctuations, hinting at a magnetic disturbance.
Despite these clues, no one took action in anticipation of an impending solar flare, largely because they lacked awareness of such phenomena. Only Carrington consistently documented sunspots, diligently sketching them. It took several more years for physicists and astronomers to decode the science of solar flares and their potential to wreak havoc on technology.
The energy unleashed by a single solar flare is monumental, comparable to the explosion of 10 billion 1-megaton nuclear bombs. This eruption sparks stored magnetic energy, radiating across a vast electromagnetic spectrum.
Delving into the anatomy of a solar flare reveals further threats. Accompanying solar flares can be Coronal Mass Ejections that traverse the extensive 93.205,678 million miles or 150 million kilometers separating Earth’s orbit from the sun in just 17 hours. Such a brief window leaves little time for adequate preparation.
Upon arrival, a geomagnetic storm interacts with Earth’s magnetic field. Any disruption to this field induces electric currents, which flow through conductive materials, including wires.
Preventive Measures for Potential Coronal Mass Ejections and Solar Flares
- Prediction is Key: The primary method to prevent catastrophic outcomes is through accurate prediction. This involves a deep understanding of the anatomy of a Potential Coronal Mass Ejections and Solar Flares. Recognizing the early signs is crucial, as they typically offer an 18-hour window to initiate global safety protocols, such as shutting down equipment to prevent damage.
- Develop Resilient Technology: Armed with knowledge about solar flares, creating more robust technology becomes vital. This includes constructing power grids with added redundancy or designing devices that can dissipate excess charge, thereby preventing the potential explosion of high-voltage transformers.
- Stockpile Mobile Power Transformers: Federal agencies can proactively stock mobile power transformers, ready to be deployed. These can substitute for any high-voltage transformers that might succumb to a solar flare.
- Protect Satellites: Satellites in Earth’s orbit should be safeguarded from potential flare damage. This can be achieved by placing them in a protective mode, allowing them to weather the storm safely.
The Carrington event isn’t the sole solar flare to affect Earth. Numerous other incidents have transpired, albeit of lesser magnitude. These past occurrences serve as reminders that, although we’ve been fortunate thus far, our luck might not always hold. The risk of another solar storm looms ever-present; the question remains: when will it strike?
- History.com: A Perfect Solar Superstorm: The 1859 Carrington Event
- Knowable Magazine: Are We Ready? Understanding Just How Big Solar Flares Can Get
- Live Science: What If the Carrington Event, the Largest Solar Storm Ever Recorded, Happened Today?
- Lloyds: Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid
- National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan | White House
- National Geographic: What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today?
- Newsweek: What Would Happen If a Doomsday, Carrington-Sized Solar Flare Hit Earth?
- NextNav: Solar Flares and GPS: Why We Should Care About Space Weather
- NH.gov: Introduction to Global Positioning System
- NIH: Possible Fatalities from Superfires Following Nuclear Attacks in or Near Urban Areas
- Space.com: The Carrington Event: History’s Greatest Solar Storm