Here's What Would Happen to Our Planet If a Solar Storm Hit

In July 2012, a solar storm caused a coronal mass ejection (CME) to rocket out of the sun toward Earth. It barely missed us, but if it had hit our planet, it would have spelled big trouble for power grids, satellites, and literally every electronic device ever. But that was 2012. What about the next one?

Apocalypse Soon

You don't see giant solar storms every day, but they're not the rarest thing in the world, either. In 1859, the few electrical devices of the world were thrown into sudden disarray by the Carrington event: the largest solar storm on record. It caused worldwide communication outages as telegraph stations were disrupted all over the globe. Some operators were shocked (literally) by the resulting electrical surges, and others reported fires breaking out as the telegraph paper was subjected to sudden, extreme heat. It was a couple of days before the "Victorian internet" was up and humming again. But if it were to happen today, the fallout could be much worse — think no electricity. Anywhere. For a year or so.

The first thing to strike Earth would be a wave of X-rays and ultraviolet light, which would ionize the atmosphere and interfere with radio communications. Then there'd be a massive radiation storm, which could be a big problem for astronauts (not much of an issue in 1859). And then would come the real fireworks. A coronal mass ejection (CME) is a slow-moving mass of charged particles that, once it gets to the planet, would interact with the electromagnetic field and produce extremely powerful electrical fluctuations. And that's what would set off a domino effect worthy of an apocalypse movie.

Basically, anything that relies on satellites would go up in smoke. That means no GPS, no ATMs, no credit card transactions, and no pay-per-view wrestling. That's just the beginning.

Remember how the telegraph wires and machines overloaded after the 1859 electrical surge? Imagine that happening to the entire power grid. Power grids in some places, like the eastern United States, are highly interconnected, so when one goes down, they all are at risk. And it wouldn't be easy to get them back online. If hundreds of the giant transformers that power the world are blown out at once, it could take a very long time to replace them. Weeks could become months could become years, and the resulting loss could clock in at about $2 trillion — and that's not even counting the loss of life. But at least we have a plan, right? Right?

Opening the Space Umbrella

So when is this devastating scenario going to unfold? There's no way to know for sure, but let's put it this way: Scientists estimate these kinds of storms happen every 100 years or so, and the last one to hit the Earth was in ... 1859. Now, we're not mathematicians, but it seems like that adds up to trouble.

You don't necessarily have to start stockpiling canned goods quite yet — that 2012 CME would have been comparable to the Carrington event if it had hit us, so we might have a little bit of time before the next one lines up for our planet. The question is, what can we do about it in the next century?

This might sound a little out-there, but the answer might literally be a giant space umbrella. And when we say "giant," we mean the size of the Earth. But this wouldn't be a physical object — an actual interplanetary parasol would block out the sun like a cartoon supervillain, and we don't want that. Instead, it would be a powerful magnetic field that would harmlessly deflect the charged particles in the CME.

What's really incredible is that, given enough time and money, we could basically do it right now. According to Anders Sandberg from Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, "Just an Earth-sized loop of one-centimeter thick copper wire weighing 100,000 tons and presumably powered by a 1 TW solar power farm [should do the job]." Is that all? Give us a couple (hundred thousand) hours and we'll install it ourselves.

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Read the whole story of the Carrington Event in "The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began" by Stuart Clark. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 19, 2017

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