Imagine, if you will, a distant star that has been in a deep slumber for millions, perhaps billions of years. Now, imagine that such a star, with the raw power and energy of trillions of atom bombs, begins to awaken. Massive eruptions and flares send unimaginable quantities of deadly radiation and electromagnetic pulses shooting into space, with bad news for any puny planet that might fall into their trajectory. No, that distant star is not in The Twilight Zone – and it’s not so distant.
That star is our own sun.
The realistic immediate threat is not to the existence of mankind (though the “killshot” of a precisely targeted super-flare could certainly have dire or apocalyptic consequences), but rather to our communications, economic, and financial infrastructure. High-tech smart power grids, communications satellites, finance and commerce, GPS navigation systems, air travel, modern warfare, and so much more are dependent upon the sensitive electronic equipment, data, and radio waves that have become the essential fundamentals of our daily lives. The National Academy of Sciences has cautioned that, from a standpoint of economic damage and chaos, a century-class solar storm would make Hurricane Katrina look like a walk in the park. Their estimate is that the sun’s rage would cause twenty times the damage to our economy as Katrina.
As we approach the climax of the sun’s 11-year sunspot cycle, NASA’s Heliophysics division is busily trying its hand at the nascent art of space weather forecasting. There is reason to concern ourselves with knowing what may be coming from the highly volatile center of our solar system, if we look at its history. The major solar event of 1859, for instance, saw an enormous “coronal mass ejection” (a tsunami of electromagnetically charged plasma explosively erupting from the sun) arrive here in less than 18 hours, overwhelming the earth’s protective magnetic shield. A century and a half ago, telegraph wires shorted out, causing fires, and the Northern Lights could be seen as far south as Havana.
In today’s technology-dependent era, all non-diesel engines may stop operating (as would computerized diesels). Communications, satellites, aircraft, agricultural equipment, water pumps, gas pumps, power plants and much more may all be out of commission. Computer chips may be fried in a severe event. All hard-drive data might be erased. We would, essentially, be transferred back to the lifestyle of 1859! Good forecasting could give us vital hours or days to protect ourselves from the effects of such an enormous electromagnetic pulse (EMP), but only if we are prepared, or at least have a plan.
Other factors could also influence the intensity of geomagnetic storms from increased solar activity. In 2008, NASA detected a huge irregularity in the pattern of the earth’s magnetic field that is causing a breach in the protection it provides for us from radiation and invasive solar particles. Some theorize that this pattern change is heralding the long overdue reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles. In this scenario, it is likely that the shielding power of the magnetic field will continue to deteriorate as we transition toward pole reversal. The effects of a severe solar storm during this time, as is expected in 2012 or 2013 at the peak of Solar Cycle 24, could be magnified by a factor of 20.
So, is the possibility of solar hyperactivity and the havoc it could cause just another Y2K dud? Or is it the mother of all EMPs waiting to happen? NASA has satellites feeding them data that could not only enlighten us all about the cycles of the sun, but that could act as the early warning system that will help us mitigate the damage. Some say that simply keeping a couple rolls of aluminum foil near our computers could give us an invaluable head start in protecting our magnetically sensitive data and equipment.