On being connected ... and dependent

Posted: 07.20.12

You think it’s hot in the central U.S. and along the East Coast—that’s nothing compared to the surface of the Sun.

A powerful sunstorm—associated with the second biggest solar flare of the current 11-year sun cycle—is now hitting Earth, so far with few consequences. But the potentially “severe geomagnetic storm,” in NASA’s words, could disrupt power grids, radio communications, and GPS as well as spark dazzling auroras.

As solar storms go, the two March 6 solar flares associated with the recent geomagnetic storm around Earth may not compare to the flares associated with the 1859 storm. But, since the Sun hasn’t yet reached peak activity for this solar cycle, this recent outburst may be only a taste of flares to come.

However, a repeat of the 1859 Carrington Event would devastate the modern world, experts say. During the Carrington Event, the northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile. The flares were so powerful that “people in the northeastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora,” Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado’s Labora­tory for Atmospheric and Space ­Physics, said at a geophysics meeting last December. In addition, the geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment—some intense enough to set fires.

“The sun has an activity cycle, much like the hurricane season,” Tom Bogdan, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, said earlier this month at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been hibernating for four or five years, not doing much of anything.” Now the Sun is waking up. Solar storms aimed at Earth come in three stages, not all of which occur in any given storm.

First, high-energy sunlight, ­mostly x-rays and ultraviolet light, ionizes Earth’s upper atmosphere, interfering with radio communications. Next comes a radiation storm, which is potentially dangerous to unprotected astronauts. Finally comes a coronal mass ejection, or CME, a slower moving cloud of charged particles that can take several days to reach Earth’s atmosphere. When a CME hits, the solar particles can interact with Earth’s magnetic field to produce powerful electromagnetic fluctuations.

Texting and Facebook will suffer


Electrical disturbances as strong as those that took down telegraph machines—”the Internet of the era”—would be far more disruptive. During these storms movie theaters will no longer have to demand that viewers turn off their cell phones. All the phones will be good for is as night lights.

Of particular concern are disruptions to global positioning systems (GPS), which have become ubiquitous in cell phones, airplanes, and automobiles, the University of Colo­rado’s Baker said. A $13 billion business in 2003, the GPS industry is predicted to grow to nearly $1 trillion by 2017.

But the big fear is what might happen to the electrical grid, since power surges caused by solar particles could blow out giant transformers. Such transformers can take a long time to replace, especially if hundreds are destroyed at once, said Baker, who is a co-author of a National Research Council report on solar-storm risks.

So always-on, always-connected location-based instant and constant communications may take a hit. Turn your mobile phone off for an hour—see if you can survive.