A solar storm could paralyze all our technology – and we would only have hours to prepare

In 1859, the earth was hit by an invisible wave.

Electrons swirled along with other magnetic storm particles and shot down the telegraph lines. When they hit an obstacle, such as the hand of a telegraph operator, they sent out a painful shock.

Paper sheets hanging around the telegraph offices suddenly caught fire. Even after the batteries were unplugged, the telegraphists were able to relay their messages –  the strange subatomic flow carried them over long distances.

Lights were dancing in the sky.

What sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie actually happened like that. It is the largest solar storm ever recorded. If he were to hit Earth today, he would jeopardize global communications, disabling satellites in orbit, and threatening the lives of all astronauts.

Solar storms come without a long warning

Of course, we would at least be warned in the short term: Nowadays, the sun is monitored every second by different measuring stations on earth and in space. But if we would see the first signs of a solar storm, we would still only a few minutes or – if we have good luck – a day to prepare for the wave of charged particles hurtling from space to us.

Therefore, it is even more amazing that in 1859 an astronomer noticed the solar storm before it arrived on Earth. And all without the technical aids that we have today.

Screen Shot 2016 09 02 at 4.31.32 PM

So Carrington drew his observations. Figures A and B represent the glow he has seen Harvard

At 11:18 am on September 1, 1859 , the English astronomer Richard Carrington stood in his private observatory to record sunspots. For this he projected the image of the sun through his telescope onto a pane of glass. 

“In two places broke an unlikely bright and white light,” he wrote in a report he for the magazine ” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society” written. “At first, I thought that a beam of light happened to fall through a hole in the bezel that I attached to the object glass to cast a shadow over the entire image because the brightness was the equivalent of direct sunlight,” Carrington said ,

The US space agency NASA describes the further events before the next sunrise as follows: “In the sky aurora lights in red, green and purple shone worldwide. They were so bright that you could read a newspaper as if it were daytime. Even near tropical latitudes, across Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador and Hawaii, auroras pulsed. “

The impact today would be dramatic

In the 1859 world, largely electrical-powered, for most people the solar storm was nothing more than a strange show of light – if they were even awake to see the effects. And apart from a few injured fingers, he has done no harm.

But over the last century, humanity has become more and more dependent on electronic devices – and has also gotten a taste of the dangers that a solar storm poses to our modern lives.

Since 1972, NASA has documented three incidents in which solar storms hit the Earth and massively impacted daily life. The latest incident dates back to 2005: The radiation of a solar flare disrupted the communication between satellites and the Earth and GPS systems for about ten minutes – and thus messed up the satellite-based navigation to air, water and on land.

But none of these solar storms even came close to the magnitude of the 1859 Carrington event.

If such a massive solar storm hit the earth today, we would have to deal with the simultaneous failure of the GPS, cell phone and power grid. All over the world, aircraft would have to make an unexpected emergency landing without relying on their satellite navigation.

“The people in space would be in danger,” writes NASA. “Astronauts on a spacewalk would only have a few minutes after the first flash of light to protect themselves from the energetic solar particles that briefly follow the first photons. The spaceship would probably provide sufficient protection; But they would have to get in there in time. “

In 2012, Earth narrowly escaped disaster

In 2012, the horror scenario would have become almost a reality. According to NASA, the Earth narrowly escaped a solar storm of enormous magnitude. If the solar storm had hit us, “we would still eliminate the damage,” said space physicist Daniel Baker in April 2016 compared to the “Basler Zeitung” .

It is estimated that a renewed Carrington event in the first year would cost between one and two trillion dollars (890 billion to 1.8 trillion euros). But eliminating all damage would take another four to ten years –  and cost more. In 2007, NASA estimated that the damage to the satellite fleet alone would be between $ 30 and $ 70 billion (€ 26.7 to € 62.3 billion).

Strong solar storms are very rare, unpredictable and unpredictable. Nevertheless, NASA believes that the probability of a devastating solar storm within the next ten years at twelve percent. Quite a lot, for an event that you do not see coming and that could completely change life on earth.  

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