On September 1st 1859 an incident known as the Carrington event, so named after the British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, caused mayhem in telegraph offices where equipment began to fail and paper caught fire. Telegraph operators received moderate electric shocks if they were using the equipment at the time.
Of course in 1859 there was no electrical grid to fail, and computer chips that would be fried should a similar event happen now, were not even imagined.
Carrington, reflecting an image of the sun onto a sheet of white paper saw a cluster of dark spots on the paper. With no preamble to the main event he then witnessed two huge flashes of intense white light emanating from the dark cluster of sunspots. It was all over in a few seconds, but within hours the effects would be seen or felt across the globe. What Carrington had seen was a solar flare. All over the world there were reports of bright colours in the night sky, auroras caused by the flare hurling electrified gas particles at planet Earth. The flare is estimated to have had the power of 10 billion atomic bombs.
So, if telegraph offices were left inoperable and fires were caused near to the equipment, what would be the result if this happened today?
Well, not a lot according to British scientists. A report by the Royal College of Engineering who state that statistically a storm of this magnitude is likely to hit every 100-200 years feel that the lattice style electricity grid used in the UK offers protection against such events and that the nations infrastructure is reasonably well prepared.
Professor Paul Cannon from the panel tasked with assessing the risk likened the level of disruption to that experienced by the UK when ash fallout from the Icelandic volcanic eruption affected air travel.
Chris Train, director of market operation at The National Grid said: “Our grid is organised as a lattice which means it has resillience built in. That’s very different to the Canadian grid for example, which is point to point with long lines in series. You can see how that kind of system might be vulnerable to cascade”
The report did concede that satellites would be affected and that this in turn would affect sat nav systems down on the ground….so it might be advisable to have a map in your car. (They really said that, I couldn’t make this up )
The report also stated that some mobile phone systems are not as robust as they could be, and that those on aircraft at the time would receive a higher dose of radiation.
Having said that global positioning would be affected at the time I would assume that a higher dose of radiation is not the first thing that will come to the mind of a pilot who has no idea where he is, and as it’s possible he is driving an enormous glider at this point, the computer chips on the flight deck having been fried as the storm passed over the aircraft. I am sure everyone will be reassured by the reports recommendations that putting some alternative sensors into aircraft to help out with “electronic glitches” that may occur.
Glitches? I wouldn’t call plummeting from 35,000 feet a glitch, personally I would feel its a major disaster, especially if me or mine were on board at the time.
In March 1989 a solar storm crashed the Hydro-Quebec power grid and resulted in loses estimated to be in hundreds of millions of dollars, again in 1994 a solar storm caused major disruption to communications satellites, network television and nationwide radio across Canada. Neither of these storms was particularly powerful in comparison to the Carrington storm, makes you wonder what the results would have happened if it had been.
To add to the confusion of whether the UK is able to deal with a Carringtonesque event both the BBC and Sky are carrying the story. The BBC headline is UK ‘can cope with solar superstorm’ whereas Sky says Solar Superstorm: UK ‘Must Brace for Threat’ Both quote the same research.
The report concludes that such an event would be disruptive but not cataclysmic, something both the BBC and Sky manage to agree on.
For me, I think I’ll just continue hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.