Tristram Fane Saunders | January 2018 | The Telegraph
You might not have noticed it, but two years ago an event took place which might just have brought about the collapse of modern civilisation.
In July 2012, an enormous flare burst from the far side of the sun. Had it happened just one week earlier, it would have been pointing directly towards the Earth, causing the worst geomagnetic storm in over 400 years.
As Reuters reported at the time, the resulting magnetic disruption could have “fried the world’s electricity grids and left hundreds of millions of customers without power for months or even years”.
Next time, we might not be so lucky.
A new BBC series, Hard Sun, imagines a similar solar phenomenon. Two London coppers (played by Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn) stumble across a USB drive containing a secret digital dossier, counting down towards an “extinction level event” in five years time.
In early episodes, there is some doubt about the cause – “Did it refer to a meteor, or a comet?” one character asks – but it doesn’t take Scotland Yard’s finest to figure out the truth: the drama begins with the sight of giant flares leaping from the surface of the sun.
“This isn’t science fiction. This is the real world,” the show’s writer Neil Cross has said. But how plausible is it? Should we be concerned? And for those of us who dozed off in science at school, what exactly is a geomagnetic storm anyway?
“The surface of the Sun is an incredibly dynamic place,” says astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack. In an active phase, it can release bursts of plasma and radiation into space. If directed towards the earth, these eruptions (known as Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs), can disrupt the Earth’s magnetic fields in what we call a geomagnetic storm. It’s a CME that we see in the opening moments of Hard Sun’s first episode
“It can be hugely disruptive if it’s very strong,” Dr Mack explains. “Sudden variations in the electromagnetic field can cause sparks to pass between electronic components, shorting out circuits. The biggest dangers would be to satellites (including the GPS system) and to the power grid on Earth.”
The closest we have come to this kind of storm was the Carrington Event of 1859, named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington, who discovered a link between the “two patches of intensely bright and white light” he noticed erupting from sunspots just before the event, and the strange phenomena that followed. During this major geomagnetic storm, the Northern Lights were visible as far south as Honolulu, while eerie illuminations made the night almost as bright as the day.
One contemporary newspaper quoted a woman from Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, who was dazzled by what she saw. “The whole island was illuminated,” she said. “The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”
For anyone working on the fledgeling electrical telegraph system, the effects were far stranger. Sparks leapt from the machines, shocking the operators and setting fire to highly flammable telegraph paper. The surge of energy running through the wires was strong enough to melt the instruments’ platinum contacts.
While many telegraph communications stopped dead, a few operators in Boston found that their transmitters still worked even with the batteries unplugged, and that they were able to send telegraph messages using only the current from the aurora.
Today, with electricity and satellite communications playing an essential part in our daily lives, the effects would be far more serious.
A CME of that kind would not only knock out power generators, but also telecommunication towers. With no radio or TV news, and mobile phone networks dead, the sudden and unexplained black-out could easily lead to a mass panic and rioting. Worse still would be the potential failure of the all-important electric cooling systems at nuclear power plants; the result could be a disaster on the scale of the 2012 Fukushima incident.
A report published in 2013, following the previous year’s major CME, warned that “our society would still be picking up the pieces.” One of the report’s authors, Dr Daniel Baker of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, has suggested that it could take up to 10 years to fully recover from such an incident.
To make matters worse, in real life – unlike in Hard Sun – we wouldn’t have five years to prepare for it. At best, our advance notice would be closer to a single day. “We get 19 hours or more for a coronal mass ejection, but we don’t know whether or not it will hit Earth, or what the conditions may be,” Plasma physicist Dr Melanie Windridge told theMail in November. “Fifteen minutes warning is all we have to tell us about the specific conditions of what will hit us and how problematic it could be.”
The chance of another enormous solar flare erupting in the next decade has been estimated at just one in eight. Of course, the chance of it being directed at Earth is much smaller, and there are steps we can take to prepare for such an event. In the US, the Department of Energy is working on a “strategic transformer reserve” – a system for providing power stations with back-up transformers to quickly replace any that might be knocked out by a geomagnetic storm.
Other possible safety measures include using capacitor banks to absorb excess energy, or constructing Faraday cages around irreplacable pieces of equipment to block out electro-magnetic radiation. Even so, safeguarding the entire grid in this way could cost up to $30 billion.
But without these safeguards, would we really be looking at the kind of catastrophe imagined in Hard Sun? In the BBC One series, when detectives Renko and Hicks access the secret USB drive, a number of frightening and unintentionally ridiculous phrases flash up on screen: “magnetic disruption”; “homicide rates”; “body bag demand” (is the bag shortage itself really that much of a concern?); and more seriously, “crop failure”.
This nightmarish scenario, Dr Mack tells me, is a bit far-fetched. “I really doubt it could harm surface agriculture,” she says. “For something like that, you’d need something strong enough to seriously damage the magnetic field or atmosphere, and I don’t see how a CME from the Sun could be that powerful. It would be a short-term disruption and would mess with electromagnetic fields for a bit but it wouldn’t strip the Earth’s protection completely. Screwing with the power grid could harm a heck of a lot of things, but the CME itself isn’t going to kill all our plants.”
So, it’s not the end of the world after all? “We’re not doomed,” Dr Mack tells me, patiently. “There are procedures in place to try to shore up the power grid. Losing GPS and other satellite communications (and possibly cell phone communication) would be a huge mess but we’d recover.”
But what about all those BBC One viewers who have been left cowering behind the sofa? “We’re still learning a lot about the Sun. For example, the upcoming Parker Solar Probe will get up close and personal with the solar corona, hopefully solving some of the abiding mysteries and helping us make better predictions,” says Dr Mack. “If you’re worried, encourage more investment in space science!”
Note: If any other machine in history had been as unreliable as digital technology no one would have given it houseroom. It is only because we have allowed ourselves to become dangerously dependent on the technology that it is tolerated. — RH