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August 6, 2013

Beam: House of the rising solar flares

— Liberal arts majors, in general, aren’t especially strong in the science department. The only thing I ever really got from an astronomy class was that the star I had been wishing on for passing grades was actually a planet. My GPA that semester can lend credence to the fact that asking Mars for a certain favor doesn’t nearly have the same effect.

Suffice it to say, when the Washington Examiner reported July 31 that the earth narrowly missed a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could have “knocked out power, cars and iPhones throughout the United States,” I believed the news agency. Surely this reporter from the big city paper knew a heck of a lot more about our solar system than me. If not, two seemingly reliable sources with some highfalutin credentials behind their name also gave quotes that had seemed to confirm the near disaster.

“Basically this is a Russian roulette thing,” Peter Vincent Fry, who had who served on the Congressional EMP Threat Commission was quoted as saying in the news story. “We narrowly escape(d) from a Carrington-class disaster.”

Now that statement alone has to make you wonder a couple of things. First and foremost, why wasn’t this crazy cosmological event plastered all over the news? And then secondly, what the heck is a Carrington-class disaster?

Let’s start with the latter. A Carrington-class disaster has unfortunately nothing to do with the troubles faced by that old rich family on the ’80s television show “Dynasty.” Joan Collins, you can go back to relaxing.

What it does refer to is a huge solar storm that took place in September 1859. The name actually comes from the British astronomer Richard Carrington, who first observed and later linked this solar event to some earthbound happenings.

You see, our sun pretty regularly releases plasma and electromagnetic radiation. Given the vastness of space and the size of our sun, most of the flares drift off into the wild black yonder.

For the radiation that reaches us here on earth, our atmosphere does a superb job of tempering the effects of the cosmic rays. Instead of creating superheroes like the Human Torch and the Invisible Woman, this wave of dissipating radiation normally only produces the beautiful northern lights instead, although at times with some minimal radio and satellite disruptions.

Like with chocolate and wine, too much electromagnetic radiation, of course, is never a good thing. And this leads us back to the solar superstorm that occurred Sept. 1-2, 1859, the largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded.

According to a March 2, 2011, article by Richard A. Lovett for National Geographic News, northern lights extended as far south as Cuba and Hawaii during this incident. The auroras became so bright people in the northeast that night could read their newspapers just from the light.  

While a little nighttime reading sounds great and all, the event also brought with it some negatives. Telegraph operators began noticing sparks flying from their equipment, Lovett reported, with fires even erupting in some instances. In effect, the electromagnetic radiation had fried the telegraph’s wiring.

As you can imagine, not a lot of electrical dujiggies existed back in 1859. The harnessed power of the Gods was still in its infancy. But fast forward 150 plus years. Electrical devices are everywhere. And most all require power from an outlet that’s attached to a sprawling grid.

Here lies the problem as well as the reason why people have used that poor British astronomers name to denote a potential disaster. If a solar flare the size of the one in 1859 hit a portion of earth today, most likely transformers helping to power the electrical grids affected by the occurrence would be destroyed.

For many months and maybe even years, the area in question would be without electricity. Essentially the blast would send the country back to a preindustrialized civilization, at least for a bit until the destroyed electrical components got fixed.

Both governments and private agencies have begun to take notice of this unlikely but nonetheless worrisome scenario. Congressman Trent Franks introduced a bill called the SHIELD Act in Congress last month. Instead of setting up a super secretive espionage agency like in the Marvel comics, the legislation would mandate that the federal government take steps to secure and protect transformers and other essential components of the power grid from any type of EMP overexposure.

OK, now that we understand the Carrington effect, how did this near miss for earth last month not burn up the television airways with play?

Well, it looks like the averted catastrophe might not have actually ever happened. Little information is readily available, but the website spaceweather.com reported that the Washington Examiner story was erroneous. During the whole of July, solar activity, in its estimation, was low.

Yet even with this pleasant news, Dr. Tony Phillips, the founder of the website, added, “the possibility of such a storm is, however, worth thinking about: A modern Carrington event would cause significant damage to our high-tech society.”

As if the zombie apocalypse and huge asteroids colliding with earth weren’t enough to worry about, we now must add massive EMP incident to the list.

Maybe wishing on Mars isn’t such a bad idea after all.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com

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