By Ruthanna Gordon
A wave of scalding plasma rises from the surface of the sun. As it plunges back down, gaseous droplets the size of the Earth splash the surface. Some of the material actually reaches escape velocity, plummeting outward at 1100 kilometers per second. It will reach us late Thursday or early Friday. And then…?
Probably most people won’t even notice. Such is the odd relationship between the sun’s drama and everyday life on Earth. Wednesday’s coronal mass injection, spectacular enough to draw gasps from solar watchers around the globe, may cause mild interference with satellite radio, or slightly boost the power of the northern lights. But 150 million kilometers is a long way, and the blast wasn’t aimed directly at us—it will brush our magnetosphere only in passing before continuing on its way.
This blasé attitude may be a luxury. The sun is becoming more active as it approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle. Of course, we’ve been through this before—in the early 2000s, for example. It’s not a catastrophe. But some peak events can be more impressive than others. In 1859, a massive solar storm actually set telegraph wires on fire! Auroras were visible as far south as Hawaii and as far north as Chile. The Carrington Event, named for the astronomer who documented it, caused surges in electrical activity of all types.
Today, such surges would be far more disruptive. Our electrical grid is much larger, more closely networked, and more vital. Our little local storms can take out small portions of the grid, causing blackouts that last for hours, or in the worst case days. A Carrington repeat, disrupting the grid across the board, could leave people without power for weeks or months.
There are things we can do to minimize the risk. Although solar weather forecasting is still primitive—about where planetary forecasting was a couple of decades ago—it does exist. And 150 million kilometers is a long way, so we’d be likely to have some warning. Deliberately shutting down transformers would cause temporary blackouts, but protect our electrical infrastructure while the storm rolled safely past. Even so, anything depending on internet access or satellite communications—medical records, for example, or your ability to buy anything except with cash—would be disrupted.