Wednesday, September 2, 2009

'Perfect Solar Storm' 150 Years Ago Today: Good News; Bad News

"150 Years Ago: The Worst Solar Storm Ever" (September 2, 2009)

"On Sept. 2, 1859, an incredible storm of charged particles sent by the sun slammed into Earth's atmosphere, overpowered it, and caused havoc on the ground. Telegraph wires, the high-tech stuff of the time, suddenly shorted out in the United States and Europe, igniting widespread fires. Colorful aurora, normally visible only in polar regions, were seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.

"Earth's magnetic field normally protects the surface of the planet from some storms. In 1859, the planet's defenses were totally overwhelmed. Over the past decade, similar but less powerful storms have likewise busted through, giving scientists insight into what will eventually happen again.

"The outlook is not rosy.

"The solar storm of 1859 was three times more powerful than one that cut power to an entire Canadian province in 1989. Experts say if it happened today - and it could - the result might be unthinkable...."

The results are obviously not "unthinkable," since quite a number of people have thought about them. Really bad news, yes. Unthinkable, no.

Katrina, that big hurricane a few years back, did between $80,000,000,000 and $125,000,000,000 of damage. If the 1859 storm happened today, the price tag could be as high as $2,000,000,000,000. Maybe fifteen or twenty times Katrina's, but not that bad, actually. Compared to an asteroid impact or a Deccan-Traps-scale volcanic eruption, anyway.

(I'm guessing that intends United States usage for "billion" and "trillion:" 1,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000 respectively.)

That's the bad news. Did I mention? Those experts figure it'd take between four and 10 years to recover.

The good news is that we know more about the sunspot cycle, solar flares, and the storms that come with them, than we did a hundred and fifty years ago.

Bad news, again: We still can't predict the storms. Not with any reasonable degree of accuracy.

This article does a pretty good job of summarizing and presenting background for this anniversary, and has links to related articles on the website.

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