The Newest Threat to All Human Life on Earth: Solar Storms
Oh man, ever since global warming came on the scene it seems like our apocalyptic scenarios are all rising sea levels and spreading tropical disease. Now NASA has come up with an awesome new way the earth might get destroyed.
In 1859, a geomagnetic storm sparked by a huge solar flare swept over the Earth. Telegraph wires shorted out and set houses on fire. A brilliant aurora was seen in Hawaii—so bright that "people could read newspapers by [its] red and green glow." Scientists predict that in May 2013, the sun's solar cycle will peak at about the same level as in 1859. Get ready for space weather!
Next week, scientists will meet at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum in DC to talk about how to prevent civilization from being destroyed in the next few years by solar storms. The ability to monitor and predict so-called "space weather"—solar flares, interplanetary magnetic fields, etc.—is a relatively new capability. But what scientists have found is sort of unsettling. They predict a marked increase in solar storms over the next few years. According to NASA scientist Richard Fisher: "The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity."
This is bad news for anyone who likes electronic things. As Fisher says, "Our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms." That's because today we're so dependent on technology hooked up to satellites, which can be disabled or destroyed by huge waves of charged particles spit out by the sun during a solar storm: GPS, cell phones—even credit card transactions use a satellite. In a worst-case simulation, reported by NPR, a particularly severe solar storm not only took out the majority of commercial satellites, it also charged power lines to the point where transformers blew all over the world, "leaving millions of people in northern latitudes without power."
Ideally, we could send Bruce Willis into the sun and have him put a nuclear bomb on it. But really the only thing we can do now to deal with sun storms is to predict them and put satellites in "safe" mode, according to NASA. As for all those exploding transformers and power-outages: At least we'll be able to read our newspapers. [NASA]