Technology

Could huge sunburst unplug Earth?

The Kansas City StarMarch 1, 2014 

US NEWS SCI-SUNBURST KC

The transit of Venus can be seen against the setting sun as a black dot near the KCPL building in downtown Kansas City, Mo., from the upper deck of Kauffman Stadium is seen, June 5, 2012. (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT)

JOHN SLEEZER — MCT

— When the sun got ornery in 1859, American telegraph operators saw sparks fly.

A huge solar flare belched a cloud of charged particles into Earth’s path. But other than frying telegraph lines, the electromagnetic collision caused little stir in the world.

Nobody back then had yet switched on a decent light bulb, much less charged an iPhone.

Yet the sun hasn’t changed its ways, and that worries University of Kansas physicist Adrian Melott, among others. If the remnants of a similar solar flare struck the planet today?

“Gee, I’d be without cable TV,” Melott deadpanned.

Without email too, some fear. No heating or cooling. No electric grid.

Satellite technology, it was nice knowing you.

This is the scenario rolling out from a growing network of scientists, policymakers and survivalists. Not quite doomsday because life itself would continue, but a silent natural disaster that could unplug us from all we depend upon.

“It’s happened before, as recently as 1989,” said astrophysicist David Hathaway of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “That geomagnetic storm took out a big transformer in New Jersey.”

Still, it was no “Carrington event,” named for British astronomer Richard Carrington, who charted the 1859 solar burst.

Scientists today regard what happened in 1989 as a mere sun-to-Earth wakeup call, an electromagnetic puff, though strong enough to knock out power in Quebec and parts of the U.S. Northeast.

Hathaway said the Big One, Carrington-style, “could be catastrophic,” leaving much of North America without juice for months or years.

A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences warned that a massive geomagnetic assault on satellites and interconnected power grids could result in a blackout from which the nation may need four to 10 years to recover.

Sound like Y2K?

“The earth is in peril, and people love that,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

“This one’s a little eccentric. … But given a world so interconnected and dependent on technology, with all our cellphones and computers, there’s some legitimate scientific concern about this.”

Because solar storms occur regularly, with magnetic loops flaring and twisting around sunspots, government weather scientists say it’s inevitable that Earth will, on rare occasion, get bonked by what they call a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME.

A cloud of solar plasma, depending on the magnetic makeup of its electrons, could penetrate and shake the planet’s magnetic field, if the sun’s aim is just so.

In May 2012, a U.S. Geological Survey report estimated a 6 percent chance of another Carrington event occurring in the next decade.

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