Although the solar storm we’re experiencing at the moment is only a ‘worst in five years’ event, it’s chilling to consider the implications of something much stronger hitting our planet.
Solar storms come in the wake of violent activity on the Sun, such as a solar flares, causing mind-boggling amounts of gas to be flung out into space, travelling at around 2,000 kilometres per second (which is too fast even for a speed camera to take a photo of).
When this material pounds against Earth’s magnetic field (the magnetosphere), it causes a geomagnetic storm, and this can really create problems with anything electrical.
In 1859, the most powerful solar storm in recorded history knocked out telegraph systems, with poles sparking and operators being shocked at their desks. The telegraph was just about the height of technology at the time.
In 2012, rather than electrical contraptions being few and far between, or just for the wealthy, they’re everywhere. Modern society is totally reliant on hi-tech electrical and electronic equipment; even the Taliban use mobile phones.
But it’s not just smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions, satellites and so on that we’d lose, should the planet be hit by a significantly more powerful solar blast wave… it’s not that we’d be sitting twiddling our thumbs at home, with nothing to play and nobody to talk to, online, and that would be the full extent of our problems… it’s that all of our systems would collapse at the same time, because they’re run with electronic equipment.
It could silence our communication system, so the only way you could deliver a message to someone would be to hand-write it and take it there yourself. Almost all vehicles have electronic systems and they’d all be redundant. There’d be no fuel… no heating… no water supply… no restocking of supermarket shelves… no banking… no effective police system… no government… no money any more.
Imagine a city the size of London or New York suddenly without water, food and heating, with no way of resupplying when stocks ran out, knowing that even if they tried to make a break for it, wherever they go, people are going to be in the same position – slowly starving to death, drinking from polluted rivers and literally fighting for their lives. Billions could die across the planet as the rest of humanity learnt to adapt, again, to a life without electronics.
It sounds like the scenario of a disaster movie, but this is something that could actually happen within our lifetime… even within the next year. The Sun reaches its Solar Maximum in 2013, and many more large solar flares are anticipated as that occurs.
The Electric Infrastructure Security Council – a massive, international panel of politicians and scientists, brought together to look at ways of preventing or coping with such an event - say, on their website: “… the probability that modern society will face such an event is essentially 100%”
Maybe it’s time to stock up on tins of beans and bottled water?