Living With Flare

07.23.10 | Comment?

photo of magnetic field around a sunspot, courtesy of Hinode JAXA/NASA

Magnetic Field around a Sunspot. Image credit Hinode JAXA/NASA

I’ve had a long-standing interest in solar power, the effect of solar cycles on our weather, and the like. I suppose that’s why I’m fascinated by the Carrington Flare— an 1859 solar flare so strong that the magnetic effects on earth caused telegraph wires to spark and catch fire.  It really sparks the imagination. What would a flare of that magnitude do to our wired world today? Forget climate change– how could society react if the majority (or even merely half) of electronic equipment around the world simultaneously fried? It revives all those Y2K fears all over again, except we don’t know when the hammer will fall and we’re not sure how much we can protect. Imagine banking computers going down, hard drives frying, power transformers blowing out (such as the one pictured in the linked article), and cellular satellites and towers failing. Okay, I admit it. My fascination has less to do with science than an imaginary scenario in which the technological glue holding modern society together comes unstuck. There’s a “World War Z” story in there, sans zombies.

At any rate, it is worth noting that we appear to be emerging from a deep solar minimum (period of low sunspot activity). That means we’ll see roughly 11 years of growing sunspot activity, which means growing flare activity, which means increased magnetic fluctuation. Whether we’re due for a new Carrington-level event is a matter of conjecture, but it makes for nice drama. Maybe the Mayans were onto something with this whole calendar-ending thing. Anyone want to place bets? Electronic payment not accepted.

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