If your idea of the end of the world is a complete absence of Facebook and text messaging, you're going to want to pay attention to the sun.
"In an increasingly technological world, where almost everyone relies on cellphones, and GPS controls not just your in-car map system, but also airplane navigation and the extremely accurate clocks that govern financial transactions, space weather is a serious matter," writes NASA.
NASA's justifiable concern has to do with solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) from the surface of the sun. The two events are often linked, with one analogy painting the flare as the light from a cannon shot and the CME its high-particle payload. At their worst, of which several worrisome precedents exist, solar flares can cause severe blackouts in navigation and communications signals. CME's on the other hand, which often trigger stunning auroras, can overload electrical grids and plunge massive regions into crippling darkness.
In 1859, the worst solar storm in recorded history hit the United States, generating auroras as far south as the Caribbean and causing telegraph lines to burst into flame. If such an instance, nicknamed the Carrington storm, were to happen today, the impact on our high-tech world would be a page straight out of post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel.
"One report estimates that a Carrington-level storm today could result in power outages affecting as many as 20–40 million Americans for a duration ranging from 16 days to two years at an economic cost of up to $2.5 trillion," writes Steven Cordray, a payments risk expert at the Atlanta Fed. That's right: No power, internet, cable TV, running water, or any of the other modern conveniences we take for granted for up to two years.
"Imagine something like, for example, Superstorm Sandy," Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado told Space.com. "Imagine that kind of severe storm — but causing regional outages for weeks. Living without power really cascades and propagates in remarkable ways throughout our society."
What are the chances?
Just how big a threat are extreme solar flares in our lifetime? A 2012 research paper in Space Weather estimated the odds of a Carrington-level storm at about 12 percent by the year 2022. These kinds of storms tend to impact the planet every 150 years, making us overdue for a direct hit. In fact, in 2012, a solar flare on level with the Carrington event narrowly missed Earth. The video below explains more about the Carrington event.
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," Baker told NASA in 2014. "I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire."
To help counter the threat, the White House released a National Space Weather Action Plan in 2015, detailing how to better predict and prepare for cataclysmic space weather. For individuals, the Department of Homeland Security even recommends a space weather emergency kit, similar in makeup to disaster kits for earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
"The main area of concern will most likely be our nation's electric power grid," the agency's site informs. "Northern territories are more vulnerable to these effects than areas farther south."
In 1989, a solar flare the size of 36 Earths blasted off the sun's surface and struck our planet's magnetosphere; knocking out power to more than 6 million Canadians for nine hours and causing some satellites in polar orbits to temporarily lose control. While not nearly as strong as the Carrington event, it was the largest such geomagnetic disturbance in modern history and a pertinent warning.
"People are of a mind that because nothing too terrible has happened in the past, that something won't now," Sten Odenwald, an astrophysicist at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told Scientific American. "We've heard that kind of logic before, and we got Hurricane Katrina. The cost of not preparing for extreme space weather could be dramatic."
How do we know a solar flare is coming?
With the threat of solar storms a near-certainty, you might think that more resources would be scrambled to provide as much advanced warning as possible of an imminent powerful CME. As of today, however, the best heads-up we could expect would come from NOAA's DISCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory), which would provide 15 to 60 minutes of lead time and you can learn more about in the video above. (It's also interesting to note that importance of space forecasting was sealed during the Cold War in 1967, when a solar blast jammed U.S. military radio signals — and was initially interpreted as a malicious action by Russia. Luckily, a monitoring program established earlier that decade solved the mystery.)
“A critical piece of the [National Space Weather Action] plan is to make sure we have an operational suite of instruments both on ground and in space to provide real-time measurements we need as a nation to support space weather for the nation,” Bill Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) told The Washington Post.
Until then, better throw together your space weather emergency kit — just in case.