Good news! Our sun is about to enter “solar maximum,” the time in its life-cycle when it’s at its most active. Wait a second, that’s bad news. National Geographic reports that within the next couple of years, massive sun storms will possibly knock out GPS systems, blow up power plant transformers, and delete the Beatles’ entire catalog from existence (we made that last one up, but if the sun is a big enough asshole to mess with Google Maps, where the hell does it stop?).
Scientists are looking to 1859’s Carrington Event, the biggest solar storm on record, for comparison. It occurred at a solar maximum that was “about the same size as the one we’re entering, according to NASA.” Weird stuff happened on Earth during the Carrington event:
“The geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment.”
If you’re like us, you like to line the floors beneath your telegraph machines with oily rags. You know, for the “fun fumes.” When the solar storms start, you may want to stop doing this.
In addition to messing with antiquated communications equipment, solar storms will probably attack all our newfangled gizmos as well:
Of particular concern are disruptions to global positioning systems (GPS), which have become ubiquitous in cell phones, airplanes, and automobiles, [the University of Colorado’s Daniel] Baker said. A $13 billion business in 2003, the GPS industry is predicted to grow to nearly $1 trillion by 2017.
In addition, Baker said, satellite communications — also essential to many daily activities — would be at risk from solar storms.
“Every time you purchase a gallon of gas with your credit card, that’s a satellite transaction,” he said.
But the big fear is what might happen to the electrical grid, since power surges caused by solar particles could blow out giant transformers. Such transformers can take a long time to replace, especially if hundreds are destroyed at once, said Baker, who is a co-author of a National Research Council report on solar-storm risks.
There is some positive news, however. We can predict solar storms, and even the most violent ones only last a couple of hours. If a mean-looking cloud of charged particles is making a beeline for a Con Edison plant, they can pull it offline to avoid a major outage. And if you’ve ever called Con Ed, you know just how fast they react to any problem.
So take our advice*: Stare straight into the sun and bravely say, “I’m not scared of you, you big, bright bastard!”
*Do not take our advice.
What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today? [National Geographic]