When the sun got ornery in 1859, American telegraph operators saw sparks fly.
A huge solar flare belched a cloud of charged particles into Earth’s path. But other than frying telegraph lines, the electromagnetic collision caused little stir in the world.
Nobody back then had yet switched on a decent light bulb, much less charged an iPhone.
Yet the sun hasn’t changed its ways, and that worries University of Kansas physicist Adrian Melott, among others. If the remnants of a similar solar flare struck the planet today?
“Gee, I’d be without cable TV,” Melott deadpanned.
Without email too, some fear. No heating or cooling. No electric grid.
Satellite technology, it was nice knowing you.
This is the scenario rolling out from a growing network of scientists, policymakers and survivalists. Not quite doomsday because life itself would continue, but a silent natural disaster that could unplug us from all we depend upon.
“It’s happened before, as recently as 1989,” said astrophysicist David Hathaway of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “That geomagnetic storm took out a big transformer in New Jersey.”
Still, it was no “Carrington event,” named for British astronomer Richard Carrington, who charted the 1859 solar burst.
Scientists today regard what happened in 1989 as a mere sun-to-Earth wakeup call, an electromagnetic puff, though strong enough to knock out power in Quebec and parts of the U.S. Northeast.
Hathaway said the Big One, Carrington-style, “could be catastrophic,” leaving much of North America without juice for months or years.
A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences warned that a massive geomagnetic assault on satellites and interconnected power grids could result in a blackout from which the nation may need four to 10 years to recover.
Sound like Y2K?
“The earth is in peril, and people love that,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “There is this certain human fascination with disaster.
“This one’s a little eccentric. … But given a world so interconnected and dependent on technology, with all our cellphones and computers, there’s some legitimate scientific concern about this.”Are we due?
Odds of an electronics Armageddon anytime soon are far from clear.
Because solar storms occur regularly, with magnetic loops flaring and twisting around sunspots, government weather scientists say it’s inevitable that Earth will, on rare occasion, get bonked by what they call a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME.
A cloud of solar plasma, depending on the magnetic makeup of its electrons, could penetrate and shake the planet’s magnetic field, if the sun’s aim is just so.
Some say a super CME, capable of shorting out satellites around the globe and frying electric lines across a continent, might be a once-in-a-century event.
In May 2012, a U.S. Geological Survey report estimated a 6 percent chance of another Carrington event occuring in the next decade.
Still other researchers, such as NASA’s Hathaway, point out that for an event that big, the statistics are too flimsy to measure.
The uncertainty rests in the relatively brief span of time in which scientists have recorded a link between sunbursts and electromagnectic fluctuations on Earth, the first being Carrington’s observations on Sept. 1, 1859.
And even then, the world knew about it only because an emerging technology went haywire.
“Telegraph systems, the Internet of that age,” said Daniel Baker, director of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Sparks shocked telegraph operators and set fire to their paper.
Electric surges created enough juice in some telegraph lines that operators were able to communicate even after disconnecting their batteries.
According to newspaper accounts, the Northern Lights could be viewed as far south as the Caribbean, the result of electrically charged particles from the sun entering Earth’s atmosphere.
But beyond the aurora sightings and the telegraph station fires, the CME of 1859 passed without much notice.
“Without technology being our antenna to collect the effects of a geomagnetic storm, we’d have no way of knowing” if one ever arrived, Baker said.
Nor could we know whether or not the Carrington event was as bad as sunstorms get.
Melott of KU, in a 2012 paper, proposed that material from a solar megaflare 10 times the strength of the Carrington kind bombarded this planet around the year 775.
There just weren’t wires to get blown out.
There were cedar trees, however, that absorbed a heavy dose of something from outer space.
Japanese scientists discovered a baffling spike in carbon-14 deposits within tree rings dating to the eighth century. In a study published in the journal Nature, they floated the possibility of a supernova causing the deposits because a burst so powerful from the sun had never been recorded.
But Melott, along with Washburn University professor Brian Thomas and others, countered the Japanese findings with their own published study. It challenged the notion that the Carrington event was the all-time mother of sun flares emanating to Earth.
Carrington “was a biggie,” Melott said, but maybe not the biggest.
Beware the “Charlemagne event,” Melott’s nod to the eighth-century warrior and king.Odd partners
In Washington, concerns about an epic sunstorm have not drawn a lot of public attention. But they are forging unusual political alliances.
Policymakers on the right have long warned of terrorists detonating a nuclear device 20 miles above the United States, causing an “electromagnetic pulse,” or EMP, that could wreak havoc on electric grids in ways a sun-spawned CME can.
In hopes of preventing both brands of chaos, tea party politicians have joined liberals such as U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, to push legislation requiring utilities to harden the nation’s electric infrastructure.
Such a bill, called the GRID Act, passed the U.S. House in 2010 but never gained traction in the Senate.
Since then, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ordered utilities to assess their vulnerabilities and deliver plans.
Topeka-based Westar Energy, providing power to nearly 700,000 customers in the eastern third of Kansas, said the industry should proceed with caution.
“Let’s figure out what we’re trying to solve, first,” said Tom Stuchlik, the utility’s executive director of systems operations.
Experts say solutions range from upgrades that keep power surges from spreading, to sheds that protect big transformers, to rockets at the ready to carry communications satellites into space, replacing a bunch of dead ones.
“If a once-in-a-millennium event does come along, what can you do now that you know is going to work?” asked Allen Klassen, Westar’s director of transmission systems operation.
As with hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, electromagnetic natural disasters are believed to threaten some areas of Earth more than others.
Upper latitudes are more apt to get hit than places closer to the equator. Grids near large bodies of salt water or atop heavy concentrations of granite are at higher risk too.
The Midwest’s location and subsoil conditions make a Carrington-style blackout less likely to spread, contend Westar and KCP
Plenty of other skeptics dismiss the doomsday scenario.
Whether the perceived threat to our high-tech cocoon is tied to a source natural or nuclear, nonproliferation scholar Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Insitute of International Studies recently told the Los Angeles Times: “People are saying these outlandish things that are not related to data. You get skeptical of them really quick.”
Julie L. Casey, a St. Joseph area author of young-adult books, can’t help but ponder the possibilities.
“Everything shuts down,” said Casey, of rural Union Star, Mo. “Without electricity, there is no manufacturing. No medicines. No processed food.
“No gasoline could be refined or even oil drilled.”
Such thoughts compelled her to write a novel published last year, “How I Became a Teenage Survivalist.” It tells of a Missouri farm boy’s triumph in the wake of a massive sun flare that took away the conveniences he knew.
Her publisher, Pants on Fire Press, will soon release a sequel set in downtown Kansas City.
Different boy. Same geomagnetic storm.
The second book is scarier than the first, which served up more hope than horror.
“We can learn to live without electricity,” Casey said she was initially thinking. “Ask any survivalist. The best place to be is out on a farm.”
But in the city?
Spoiler alert: In her sequel, downtown becomes a disease-stricken ruin.