Play Video

Should We Worry About Solar Storms?

Solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and the Carrington Event

April 2024

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

On August 28, 1859, blood red lights appeared in the night sky across the United States. They were so bright that people could read the newspaper by them. And their color was so deep that in some places they were mistaken for nearby fires.i

And then … things started getting even weirder.

Telegraph machines went haywire. One moment they’d go dead. The next, “streams of fire" would fly from their wires.ii And it wasn’t just in the U.S. Similar events were happening in Europe as well.

The end of the world? Not quite.

It turned out that these strange occurrences — later called the “Carrington Event” — were all connected to huge eruptions of energy from the Sun.

These days, we know these phenomena as “solar storms.” And if we get hit by one of this size again … it could be worse.

A lot worse.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

Life as we know it would not exist without the Earth’s magnetic field.

Which raises an important question: What the hell is the Earth’s magnetic field?

Simply put, it’s a force generated deep within the planet’s interior that extends out into space, providing a protective buffer around the Earth.

Now, the magnetic field is important for a wide variety of reasons. Some of them are just kinda interesting — it’s the reason that compasses work — and some of them are pretty essential, like the fact that the magnetic field keeps the Sun from murdering us.

Here’s what we mean: The Sun is constantly throwing off huge amounts of energy, some of which ends up headed towards Earth. And, for the most part, our magnetic field insulates us from the negative consequences of this “solar weather” — which is helpful, because, without it, those energy bombardments would make the planet uninhabitable.

But there are cases when solar weather is so powerful that some of the effects do actually get felt here on Earth.

Now, this can be majestic, as in the case of the Northern Lights. But it could also be terrifying — because the worst solar storms have the potential to wreak havoc here on Earth.

What kind of havoc? Well, if you’re watching this thousands of years after The Great Collapse, you already know. But for everyone else, here goes…

Let’s start with the small stuff. Solar flares can disrupt radio communications, reduce the lifespan of satellites, or even make your GPS less precise. Not great, but also not things that are going to radically change your life.iii

In other cases, however — well, let’s just say … you’d notice. The Sun produces events known as coronal mass ejections — which can send billions of tons of matter out into space.iv And, if it comes towards us, it can impact the Earth in as little as 15 hours.v One potential result: geomagnetic currents that can damage our critical infrastructure like electrical transmission lines or oil pipelines.

This is what caused those incredible auroras and exploding telegraphs back in 1859. It’s also what nearly led the U.S. to nuclear war with the Soviet Union in 1967 — when a solar storm briefly interfered with our radar, leading the US to think the Soviets were about to attack.vi

More recently, solar storms have caused serious power-outages in Canadavii and Swedenviii, and even destroyed 40 Starlink satellites shortly after their launch.ix

But here’s the thing: None of those storms were nearly as powerful as what we experienced back in 1859. And, given how reliant modern life is on technology, we don’t know exactly how we’d fare if a Carrington-style event came along again. Or rather, when a Carrington-style event comes along again. Because it will happen at some point.

Instead of a relatively small number of telegraphs being overloaded, imagine the same thing happening to power lines, transformer stations, or the undersea cables that power the internet.x

That would mean ongoing blackouts, a crippling of global communications, and what one organization refers to as “technological chaos.”

The name of that organization? NASA.xi

There’d also be economic consequences. According to a 2013 report from Lloyd's of London, a Carrington-class event today could cause between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion in damage ... just in the United States.xii

But there’s one big difference between the world of today and the world of the Carrington Event: Today, the odds are better that we’d see it coming.

Not only do we now have a much better understanding of how the Sun works, we also have a fleet of solar observatories monitoring it constantly.xiii And NASA is currently working on AI technology that will be able to predict where an incoming solar storm will strike, anywhere on Earth, 30 minutes in advance.xiv

Which may not sound like much, but the reason that’s so important is because much of the worst damage can be prevented by simply taking the grid offline temporarilyxv — which raises the important question: What’s more terrifying? A massive disruption of civilization as we know it or going a few hours without Instagram?

Now, does all of this mean we’re totally out of the woods? Not necessarily.

In 2012, scientists discovered evidence of past magnetic storms far more powerful than the Carrington Event. xvi And if we experienced one of those today … it’d fry power grids all over the planet.xvii

So, where does this leave us? Day to day, we’re safer than the alarmists might have you think ... but, over the long run, there’s still a significant risk — which is why we’ll have to keep doing more research … and preparing for how we’d deal with the worst-case scenarios.

These kinds of problems — rarely occurring, but devastating when they do — are often the easiest ones to be underprepared for. But we have to keep our guard up, otherwise the consequences could be devastat...

[VO cuts off and screen goes to black.]

Nah, got ya.

Seriously, though, it’d be bad.

Source(s)

  1. "Eyewitness Reports of the Great Auroral Storm of 1859" (James Green, et al.)  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  2. "Historical Records Reveal Major Space Weather Events" (Briley Lewis)  National Association of Science Writers
  3. The Impact of Flares  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  4. Coronal Mass Ejections  National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
  5. Ibid.
  6. "How Sun-Watchers Stopped World War III in 1967" (Aaron Sidder)  National Geographic
  7. "A Scary 13th: 20 Years Ago, Earth Was Blasted With a Massive Plume of Solar Plasma" (Adam Hadhazy)  Scientific American
  8. "Geomagnetic Storm of 29–31 October 2003: Geomagnetically Induced Currents and Their Relation to Problems in the Swedish High-Voltage Power Transmission System" (Antti Pulkkinen, et al.)  American Geophysical Union 
  9. "SpaceX Says a Geomagnetic Storm Just Doomed 40 Starlink Internet Satellites" (Tariq Malik)  SPACE.com
  10. "A Bad Solar Storm Could Cause an ‘Internet Apocalypse'" (Lily Hay Newman)  Wired
  11. NASA-Enabled AI Predictions May Give Time To Prepare for Solar Storms  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  12. Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid  Lloyd’s 
  13. Solar Science  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  14. NASA-Enabled AI Predictions May Give Time To Prepare for Solar Storms  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  15. Solar Magnetic Storm Impact on Control Systems  Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency
  16. "The Carrington Event of 1859 Disrupted Telegraph Lines. A “Miyake Event” Would Be Far Worse" (Jasna Hodzic)  JSTOR Daily
  17. "Traces of Oldest and Largest Solar Storm Found in Buried French Forest" (Stephanie Pappas)  Scientific American

Shownotes

Sound | Artlist: "Hidden Side" Russo, "Armed" 2050, SFX Library // Premium Beat: "Alien Thriller" Soundside, "Future Tech" ArtMaks, "Underworld" Reaktor Productions // Splice SFX Library // ProSound Cloud SFX Library

Footage | Lloyds // Mashable // AFP // NASA // National Geographic // Scientific American // The New York Times // The Smithsonian: Frederic Edwin Church // The Washington Post: // YouTube: NASA Goddard // Popular Science Monthly Volume 8: Popular Science Monthly Volume 9 // AGU Advancing Earth and Space Studies: Space Weather // The Astrophysical Journal Letters: National Diet Library // SpaceWeather.com // Newspapers.com: The Newborn Daily Progress (1859), Daily Nashville Patriot (1859), Richmond Dispatch (1859), The Cahaba Gazette (1859), The Era (1859), The Manchester Courier and Lancaster General (1859), The Morning Democrat (1859) // Adobe Stock: 1xpert, Anatskwong, Anekoho, Bahadirbermekphoto, Dbvirago, Digidreamgrafix, Far Corners Photo, Flash concept, Karamysh, Looker_Studio, NomadPhotoReference, Onay, Ovidiu, TOP LAYER STUDIO // Artlist: Timo Oksanen // Flickr: Ajay_suresh, Blake Patterson, Carl Berkeley, Joe Haupt, Luke Jones, Modesto Weller, Ryan Smith, The British Library // Getty: - / Stringer, Aapsky, Akurra, Bjdlzx, Bronek Kaminski, Bruno Tornielli, Camerique / Contributor, Cuzdez, Daria Kashurina, Discovery Access, Eternity In An Instant, FabianAeroPixel, Faruk Ibrahim Alpagut, ferrantraite, Fine Print, FreedomMAN, Freezelight, Gaf-1977, gschroer, H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock / Contributor, halbergman, hh5800, Hiroshi Nagai, imagodevita, john finney photography, Jorg Greuel, Jose A. Bernat Bacete, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Kieran Stone, MarWin55, Maxiphoto, MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images / Contributor, Missisya, NASA, ninjaMonkeyStudio, PhonlamaiPhoto, PhotoQuest / Contributor, Print Collector / Contributor, PSSP77, Ron Watts / Contributor, Science Photo Library, Shivkantsharma07, Smith Collection - Footage, Spotmatik, Universal History Archive / Contributor, Wirestock, DrPixel, Geoff Tompkinson, Tim Boyle / Staff, Akurra, imagodevita, Richard Gardette, Motortion, Bjorn Bakstad, ALEKSEI BEZRUKOV, Lighthouse Films, Alex Potemkin, Lighthouse Films, Lighthouse Films, nmlfd, Christoph Burgstedt, Charles O'Rear, Todd Gipstein, Christine_Kohler, Jasper James, beyhanyazar, Alexander Spatari, Ezra Bailey, Sascha KilmerWong Yu Liang // Pexels: Daniel Bendig, Brett Sayles, Kevin Villaruz, Laurent Lee, Magda Ehlers, Robin Jonathan Deutsch, Thang-Nhat Tran // Solar System Scope: INOVE // Unsplash: Adam Mescher // Vecteezy: drinkmilk.vh // Bubba74 // Florian839 // Madhukarjoshi1 // Google // GT1977 // Isaiah Maghanga // Sergei.Verzilin // Plage68 // Rhey T. Snodgrass & Victor F. Camp, 1922 // Rauantiques // Nfgusedautoparts // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
    "Eyewitness Reports of the Great Auroral Storm of 1859" (James Green, et al.)
  2. National Association of Science Writers
    "Historical Records Reveal Major Space Weather Events" (Briley Lewis)
  3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    The Impact of Flares
  4. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
    Coronal Mass Ejections
  5. National Geographic
    "How Sun-Watchers Stopped World War III in 1967" (Aaron Sidder)
  6. Scientific American
    "A Scary 13th: 20 Years Ago, Earth Was Blasted With a Massive Plume of Solar Plasma" (Adam Hadhazy)
  7. American Geophysical Union 
    "Geomagnetic Storm of 29–31 October 2003: Geomagnetically Induced Currents and Their Relation to Problems in the Swedish High-Voltage Power Transmission System" (Antti Pulkkinen, et al.)
  8. SPACE.com
    "SpaceX Says a Geomagnetic Storm Just Doomed 40 Starlink Internet Satellites" (Tariq Malik)
  9. Wired
    "A Bad Solar Storm Could Cause an ‘Internet Apocalypse'" (Lily Hay Newman)
  10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    NASA-Enabled AI Predictions May Give Time To Prepare for Solar Storms
  11. Lloyd’s
    Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid
  12. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    Solar Science
  13. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency
    Solar Magnetic Storm Impact on Control Systems
  14. JSTOR Daily
    "The Carrington Event of 1859 Disrupted Telegraph Lines. A “Miyake Event” Would Be Far Worse" (Jasna Hodzic)
  15. Scientific American
    "Traces of Oldest and Largest Solar Storm Found in Buried French Forest" (Stephanie Pappas)

Delve Deeper

Bonus Content

To download or print the bonus content, click here.

More Videos

May 2024

The Fatal Flaw in American Public Education

The U.S. made a big mistake in building our education system. And we may be able to fix it — with a lesson from abroad.
Watch Now...

May 2024

Fewer American Teens Are Drinking … or Doing Much of Anything

Are today’s teens better behaved than in the past? Or just undersocialized?
Watch Now...