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What if an Event Like the “Solar Storm of 1859” Occurred Today?

A solar storm in 1859 caused a widespread interference to electrical systems including telegraphs used for mass communications. A massive cloud of charged particles hit the Earth causing telegraphs to ignite and aurora lights to appear in unusual places. At the time, it was easy to get systems back online, but what would happen if a solar storm of that magnitude hit today?

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The Carrington Event, or solar storm of 1859, caused telegraphs to spark and ignite small fires. Aurora lights normally seen far up north were now visible in places like Cuba and Hawaii. They were so bright that New York residents were able to read newspapers at night. 

The Solar storm of 1859
Image source: wikimedia

The solar storm of 1859, named after eyewitness Richard Carrington, led to the development of today’s space weather department that includes major research of solar storms and flares. Solar storms originate from the eruption of dark sunspots. Once the eruption occurs, there are three waves: intense x-rays and ultraviolet light, radiation storms, and a coronal mass ejection (CME) which is a swarm of charged particles. Stage three creates the most mayhem. It causes severe fluctuations within the electromagnetic field which can short circuit items such as the telegraphs disrupted in the Carrington Event.

Smaller events, such as the Valentine’s Day Flare, Halloween storms of 2003, and 1989 solar storm in Quebec, have caused power outages, radio interference, and GPS signals to go down. These disruptions caused flight delays and left people without electricity for up to nine hours.

Sun Spots
Image source: giphy

Solar flares tend to come in 11-year cycles and fluctuate in intensity. In 1989, a solar storm in Quebec, Canada caused a power outage for as long as 90 hours in some places. Compared to the Carrington Event in 1859, this storm was only one-third as large yet affected power supplies. When the Halloween storms of 2003 hit, people saw a similar effect. The storm caused satellite interference and power outages. People even reported seeing aurora lights as far south as Texas and Florida.

Smaller flares, such as the one on Valentine’s Day in 2011, caused radio signals and GPS to go down resulting in airline delays. While these were only minor storms, they created effects which lasted a few hours to a few days within communications, technology, and transportation systems.

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If a solar flare such as the Carrington Event occurred today, it would halt GPS and satellite signals, create mass power outages, and leave people without water. Satellite transactions, such as paying for gas or GPS navigation for airlines, would come to a halt.

Charged Particles solar flare
Image credit: Ljubaznošću: Alcatel-Lucent / NJIT-Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research via

Most technology today depends on satellite signals. These include banking, communication, and government services. Everyday things such as electricity for refrigerated medications, pumps for distributing water, and credit card transactions would be disrupted. Thousands of people would be unable to get drinking water or even purchase items without cash. Grocery stores would take a big hit because of their dependence upon perishable foods. It’s estimated that as much as 66% of the United States could experience severe blackouts which could last hours, days, weeks or even months. Modes of transportation such as subways and airlines would cease until further notice. Shipping and airline industries would take a financial hit costing thousands of dollars.

A large solar storm could cost the United States up to $2 trillion in damages which would take four to ten years to recover. The United States could end up spending $41 billion per day. This is more than the $80 billion to $120 billion spent on damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Lights in United States Before Blackouts
Image source: www.nbcnews.com

Damages from mass blackouts and disruption of satellite and GPS could result in companies losing millions of dollars, if not billions. Blackouts across the United States could add $7 billion to predicted losses due to the disruption of supply chains across the world. Countries such as Mexico, China, and Canada would see a drastic decrease in revenue due to the United States’ inability to import raw materials for manufacturing from these countries, or even continue manufacturing at all. Power companies could spend millions of dollars, and it could take months to repair transformers damaged in the storm if preventive action is not taken. Each day without power is a significant monetary loss for companies and affects people on a massive scale.

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Major storms, such as the one in 1859, occur roughly every 350 years. According to the Smithsonian in 2015, we have, at best, 194 years before the next major storm.  

Solar Flare
Image source: www.smithsonianmag.com

Scientists have found that major solar flares occur every 250 to 480 years, but the average is around 350 years. According to an article in 2012, Pete Riley indicated that there’s only a 12% chance of another major solar storm occurring within the next decade. People are expected to see a rise in the frequency of smaller solar flares which occur every few years already. An example of these is the one that occurred in March of 2012. At the time, there was only a little interference with satellite communications and GPS but not enough to halt communication systems.

Scientists today can predict solar flares using new technology and provide warnings up to 20 hours before the storms occur. According to the Daily Mail, if another Carrington Event occurred we would only have 12 hours before its impacts were felt.

New Satellite Technology
Image source: www.news.nationalgeographic.com

A new device called Eruptive Event Generator (Gibson and Low), or EEGGL, aids in predicting the path of charged particles found in coronal mass ejections, the third stage of solar flares. It informs scientists of a major solar storm up to 20 hours before it hits the Earth. In the future, this will help people prepare for another storm by turning off mass generators, transformers, and systems before the storm hits. People would be without power for a few hours, at most, until the storm has passed. Afterwards, they would be able to turn the terminals back on and proceed with their daily processes.

By preparing and implementing preventative action, extensive blackouts and significant dollar losses would be prevented. It would save companies billions of dollars. One problem with predicting the next major solar storm is that by the time the scientists detected the conditions predictive of a flare, confirmed them, notified the authorities who would then notify the media, people would only have about 12 hours warning in advance of the impact.

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