Aliens zapped my toaster, or why you should care about space weather

The launch of the iPhone 5, and the fuss that’s being made over it (wow, 2 million sales in 24 hours) shows once again how far IT is embedded in every part of our lives. How lost would we be without any of the electronic kit and systems we so depend on? Even your toaster likely has a microprocessor embedded in it. And all of that makes us very vulnerable in ways that were almost totally unknown to our grandfathers. It’s not the natural world that has changed. It’s us.

You may remember that a few weeks ago there were widely publicized warnings of a solar storm which, in the end, had limited effects. And no doubt this caused many people to think that solar storms are never what you might call a real and serious problem. But consider this: 153 years ago, beginning on August 28th 1859, a super space storm occurred of such proportions as to make Hurricane Katrina look like a minor inconvenience.

At the time, the storm passed largely unnoticed because the world used so little electricity in 1859. There were some pretty dramatic effects all the same. Auroras lit the sky as far south as the Caribbean. The skies were so bright at one in the morning that mine-workers in the Rockies went to work, thinking it was daytime.

Of most interest to us: a geomagnetic tsunami put a large part of the world’s telegraph system out of action. In Boston on September 2nd, telegraph operators found that their machines worked better disconnected from their batteries. The disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field was so great that they could operate from electricity in the air. Currents induced by the storm were enough to cause some telegraph stations to catch fire and burn down. Magnetometers around the world were useless. They all registered off the scale.

The storm went on for eight days. It’s now known as “the Carrington Event” because British astronomer Richard Carrington first noted the increased sunspot activity at the time, and connected it with the storm.

One hundred-and-fifty years isn’t even a heartbeat in cosmic terms. Recent investigations suggest that a solar storm of this magnitude happens “twice in a millennium”. But that doesn’t mean regularly every 500 years. Another one of these could happen tomorrow -- or not for a thousand years. The only sure thing is that it will happen.

If it happened next Tuesday?

Well, the skies would look awful pretty. But that’s about the only positive thing you can say. All radio communications would be blacked out, certainly on the sun-side of the earth. Equipment would at best be damaged, and at worst completely zapped. People in aircraft (including scheduled airliners) would receive massive doses of X-Rays.

And that’s just the good bit. Solar storms release massive amounts of magnetic energy. Interaction with the earth’s magnetic field generate huge currents that would find their way into all electrical equipment. Most significantly the transformers of power grids would be subject to enormous surges in DC current which would, in many, many cases, overheat the cores to such an extent to melt. This would have not only local effects. The world’s electricity supply systems are so inter-connected and interdependent that failures in one location tend to have ripple effects, even into other countries.

These transformers cannot be repaired and, once the few spares have been installed, it would take months at best to manufacture and install replacements for the others. So we would have a world without electricity and all that that means: no more recorded music, no lighting, no mains water supplies (pumped and controlled by electricity) no fuel for transport (pumped and controlled by electricity), and so on.

In a nutshell, when it does happen again, pretty well everything electrical on the planet faces destruction. A recent scientific conference in the United States about a recovery time of decades.

But it hasn’t happened, has It? You’re Scare-mongering, Right?

Events of this magnitude are obviously rare. But space storms happen all the time. Just a few highlights from the space age:

  • In March 1989, a storm produced surges in the Quebec power grid that melted transformer cores and shut down the entire system. Only a few lucky capacitors prevented this shutdown from spreading down the eastern seaboard of the USA.
  • In July 2000, a solar storm temporarily closed down a whole bunch of satellites; geo-magnetically induced power surges tripped many power-grid transformers and destroyed at least one, and the GPS navigation system was unusable for several hours.
  • In 2003, the "Halloween Storm" caused extensive satellite problems and the total loss of the Midori-2 research satellite. Astronauts were told to huddle on the earth-side of the International Space Station, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the X-Ray blast. The Wide Area Augmentation System that improves the accuracy of GPS was shut down by the storm, and the entire GPS system was dramatically degraded. Airliners on northerly routes were diverted much further south since communications and navigation at higher latitudes were unreliable or blacked out.

Familiarity Breeds…

Ironically, public interest in space weather and solar events seems to have reduced during the last 50 years. Before the 1950s, high sunspot activity and solar storms made the front pages of newspapers. Now, the subject is thought a bit techie and weird -- although the real threat to our everyday lives is much greater.

Certainly, the day-to-day threat of solar storms is less than that of earth-bound weather. Nonetheless, space weather is not an abstraction. It’s something that directly affects us, and something that everyone involved in IT and communications should be aware of.

What can we do?

DON’T PANIC. I don’t want to exaggerate all of this, but I do think that the threat should be taken seriously. You can look at daily forecasts and reports for Space Weather, just as you can for the rain in your home town. Space weather forecasts and reports:

This year began with the biggest solar storm since 2003, and 2013 sees the highpoint of the 11-year sunspot cycle. Just because you personally didn’t notice the effects, it doesn’t mean there weren’t any. For instance. aircraft regularly have to route away from the North Pole to avoid the effects of solar storms.

Not very long ago, I suggested that, however we use the cloud, we should always keep our main data store locally. Those remarks notwithstanding -- and particularly if you’re in charge of mission-critical data or operations -- this is a really good argument for building geographically distributed redundancy into any operation (even your own backups). When a storm hits, effects are generally worse near the poles and on the sun-facing side of the earth (wherever it’s daytime during the storm). So you can give yourself some protection by setting up a mirror of your data or systems somewhere on the other side of the globe.

And finally, and simply, much equipment can be protected by simply switching it off for the duration of the storm. The question is, how many services will feel that the risk of upsetting their customers is greater than the risk of their equipment being fried?

Photo Credit: Sasilssolutions/Shutterstock

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