Solar Flare poses huge threat: Column
A solar flare that could wipe out the communications and electrical grids while frying a wide variety of electronics, quickly sending us back to the 19th Century.So this week the news is consumed with the Supreme Court, the immigration bill, Edward Snowden and the NSA scandals, and the IRS scandal and the lingering Benghazi scandal. But behind the scenes there are things going on that may be much more important. Earth-shakingly important, even.
No, I'm not talking about the threat from asteroid strikes. This time, though, I'm talking about a different kind of civilizational threat: A solar flare that could wipe out the communications and electrical grids while frying a wide variety of electronics, quickly sending us back to the 19th Century.
That's happened before. In fact, it happened in the 19th Century, with the "Carrington Event" of 1859. A massive solar flare sent a cloud of charged particles that struck the Earth squarely, creating massive currents in the Earth's magnetic field and sending brilliant auroras south as far as Cuba and Hawaii. About the only thing electrical back then was the telegraph network, and the Carrington event had a literally shocking impact -- causing some operators to be shocked, and inducing strong enough currents in the telegraph wires that operators could disconnect the batteries and operate the telegraph off of the flare-induced electrical flow.
Modern electronics are a lot more sensitive, of course, and a similar event today would fry computers, cell phones, new cars and more. More worryingly, it would probably melt major transformers in the power net, transformers that take months or years to replace and that are expensive enough that few spares are kept. Big chunks of the planet -- all of North America, for example -- might be without electricity for a year or longer.
The disruption would kill a lot of people -- some quickly, as medical devices failed, others later as food supplies and clean water became scarce. Without electricity, pretty much everything in our civilization comes to a stop. The economic damage would be incalculable.
We don't know how common Carrington Events are, since they probably wouldn't have made much of an impact in pre-industrial years. But in 1989 a smaller flare wiped out Hydro Quebec's grid, leaving many Canadians without power for an extended period. And similar flares have been near misses -- a Class X flare (the most powerful kind) sideswiped the Earth back in May.
Space is big, and the Earth is small, so most of these will miss us. But the consequences of being hit are serious. And there's also the possibility that an enemy nation might detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitude over the United States, generating a similar effect via the nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). (For a scary but realistic story of an EMP attack on the USA, read William Forstchen's disaster novel, One Second After.)
These kinds of worries have gone from science columns and Internet speculation, to serious worries by the National Academy of Sciences and big insurers like Lloyd's.And now Congress is taking a hand.
There's now a bill aimed at doing something to harden our systems and prepare for such events. It's called the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act (SHIELD Act for short, in one of those now-unavoidable legislative acronyms). It is aimed at seeing that those big transformers basically get the heavy-duty equivalent of surge protectors to prevent damage in the event of either a solar storm or EMP attack.
Perhaps because I lived through the Great Northeastern Blackout when I was a kid, I've always been aware of the risk of power going out. I'm glad that folks in Washington are starting to pay attention, too.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at InstaPundit.com.
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