Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Lights out

Regular readers of Skeptophilia may recall a post I did about a year ago about the Miyake Events, seven wild solar storms that occurred over the past ten thousand years that were powerful enough to alter the atmosphere's carbon-14 balance, leaving distinct traces in the composition of tree rings.  The last, and the only one that occurred during modern times, was the 1859 Carrington Event, which (even though it was one of the weakest of the recorded Miyake Events) was bad enough to short out telegraph lines, causing sparking and numerous fires, and triggered auroras as far south as the Caribbean.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Arctic light - Frank Olsen, Aurora Borealis I, CC BY-SA 3.0]

If anything like this happened today, it would be nothing short of catastrophic for the entire technological world, and I can say with little fear of contradiction that we are completely unprepared for any such eventuality.  A Miyake Event would very likely cause a near-total collapse of electrical grids, massive failure (or complete destruction) of satellites, and power surges in electrical wires that would almost certainly trigger widespread fires in businesses and residences.  Computers -- from home computers to massive mainframes -- would be fried.  Airline navigation systems and air traffic control would shut down pretty much immediately.  The disruption, and the cost, would be astronomical.

Well, a paper last week in The Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences describes evidence of a solar storm 14,300 years ago that makes the known Miyake Events look like gentle spring zephyrs.

The study focused on a site containing partially-fossilized tree trunks along the banks of the Drouzet River in Hautes-Alpes d√©partement, France, up in the Alps near the city of Gap, the location of which is coincidentally only ten miles from the tiny village (St. Jean-St. Nicolas) where my great-grandfather was born.  The carbon-14 levels in one ring in the tree trunks indicate the most powerful solar storm on record, consistent with a coronal mass ejection hundreds of times more powerful than the Carrington Event.

The worst part is that no one knows what causes solar storms.  They show no apparent periodicity -- the spacing between the known Miyake Events varies from a little over two hundred years to well over four thousand.  Even more alarming is that solar astronomers don't know if there's any warning prior to the storm occurring, or if we'll just be sitting here on our computers looking at funny pictures of cats, and suddenly be engulfed in a shower of sparks.

The damage from even a weak Miyake Event -- not to mention the one 14,300 years ago that was the subject of last week's paper -- is hard even to guess at.  "Extreme solar storms could have huge impacts on Earth," said Tim Heaton of the University of Leeds, who co-authored the study.  "Such super storms could permanently damage the transformers in our electricity grids, resulting in huge and widespread blackouts...  They could also result in permanent damage to the satellites that we all rely on for navigation and telecommunication, leaving them unusable.  They would also create severe radiation risks to astronauts."

Also unknown is how long it would take to repair the damage.  A conservative estimate is months.  Can you imagine?  Months with no computers, no email, no cellphones, no texting.  No online banking or business transactions.  No travel by airplane except for short hops.  No GPS.  No satellite contacts for television or radio... or national defense.  Restoring electrical grids would undoubtedly be first priority, and they'd likely be easier to repair, but still -- probably weeks with no electricity.

The result would be chaos on an unprecedented scale.

We've become so dependent on our high-tech world that it's hard to imagine what it would be like if suddenly it all just... went away.  I'm reminded of the last scenes of the brilliantly funny (if dark) Simon Pegg movie The World's End, where it turns out that the whole technological shebang is being run by a moderately malign intelligence (played to weary, long-suffering perfection by Bill Nighy) called The Network, who argues that humans need someone smart in control because we're just too idiotic to manage on our own:

The Network:  We are trying...
Gary:  Nobody's listening!
The Network:  If you'd only...
Gary:  Face it!  We are the human race, and we don't like being told what to do!
The Network:  Just what is it you want to do?
Gary:  We wanna be free!
Andrew: Yeah!
Gary:  We wanna be free to do what we wanna do!
Andrew:  Yeah!
Gary: We wanna get drunk!
Steven: Yeah!
Gary:  And we wanna have a good time!  And that's what we're gonna do!
The Network:  It's pointless arguing with you.  You will be left to your own devices.
Gary (incredulous that he's actually won the argument):  Really?
The Network:  Yeah.  Fuck it.
At which point The Network shuts down -- taking all of the world's technology with it.

Well, it looks like we might not need to fight The Network to destroy the whole superstructure of electronics we depend upon -- all it'd take is one good solar storm, and it'll be lights out for the foreseeable future.

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