Impact of a “Carrington-type” event on today’s world
Today we know that solar flares happen frequently, especially during solar sunspot maximums. In today’s world, electronic technologies have become embedded into everyday life and are, of course, quite vulnerable to solar activity. Power lines, long-distance telephone cables, radar, cell phones, GPS, and satellites – all could be significantly affected by an event like this one. In other words, the world’s high-tech infrastructure could grind to a halt disrupting daily activities from purchasing a gallon gas to using the Internet.
Of particular concern is the fear about what this kind of solar storm could do to the electrical grid since power surges caused by solar particles can blow out giant transformers. If numerous transformers happened to be destroyed at once, it would likely take a painfully long time to replace them. The eastern US is especially vulnerable since the power infrastructure is highly interconnected so that failures in one location could cause failures in other regions. One long-term solution to this vulnerability would be to rebuild the aging power grid to be less susceptible to solar disruptions.
On the positive side, there is comfort in the fact that observations of the sun in today’s world are a constant with a fleet of spacecraft in position to monitor the sun and gather data on solar flares. Also, there is better forecasting today and solar scientists could give some sort of warning as to when solar flares might appear and whether a given storm is pointed at Earth. Improved forecasting can allow for mitigating actions to be taken since the most damaging emissions travel slowly enough to be detected by satellites well before the particles strike the Earth. For example, power companies could protect valuable transformers by taking them offline before a solar storm strikes. One thing is certain, we should be prepared for another massive solar storm of the magnitude of the “Carrington Event” of 1859 as new information suggests these have likely been occurring much more often than previously thought.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian
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