In September 1859 the largest known solar flare on record so far was hurled at earth from the sun. All over Europe and North America telegraph systems failed, with some telegraph operators getting electrocuted and burnt by their morse keys as the storm hit. Pylons threw sparks, telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire, and despite being disconnected from power supplies it was possible to send and receive messages for days via the 'celestial power' humming through the wires.
The dot-dash-dot morse code system was just hitting its stride when the big storm hit during what is now historically known as 'Solar Cycle 10'. The early telegraph systems were simple electrical circuits consisting of a wire from point A to B through which batteries supplied electricity. Insulated wire wrapped around an iron core formed an electromagnet, which attracted a piece of iron whenever an electric current was passed through it - Morse keys were used to control current to the electromagnet to tap out messages by completing or breaking the circuit.
These electromagnets first made marks on a paper tape and then, when it was discovered that people could decipher the noises that they made by ear, they developed into the electromagnetically operated "sounders" used from the 1850s to the 1950s.
Very simple stuff - fast forward to today and we have a planet ever more wired for interaction, with approximately 3,000 satellites orbiting our planet, many being essential to our communications.
We're now in Solar Cycle 24, which will peak in 2013. (the current cycle lasted 11 years). It is currently predicted to be the least active cycle in the past one hundred years - which is good, because the devastation an 1859 size 'X' flare would wreak on our unshielded earthling electronics would be massive. There's plenty of hair raising information online detailing how automobile electronic ignitions would be wiped out, gas pump credit card transaction triggered operations depend on satellite dishes - and obviously space satellites - and would cease to function, electrical power grids would be fried, and other alarming realities.
Measured in a similar way to the earthquake Richter scale, Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X according to peak flux (in watts per square metre, W/m2) of 100 to 800 picometre X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft.
It's the M and X class eruptions that are cause for concern as they are strongest - there was a giant plasma eruption on the surface of the Sun on November 16th but since it wasn't headed toward Earth it didn't cause any communication problems. Nevertheless, like earthquakes it's only a matter of time before nature takes its course with a 'big one'.
A severe geomagnetic storm following an X15 flare in March 1989 caused the collapse of Hydro-Québec's electricity transmission system during solar cycle 22, resulting in lengthy blackouts and subsequent mitigation strategies.
Thierry Cohen impression of Shanghai without any artificial light
With information technology moving rapidly to an ever more connected online format this gives pause for thought about storage of critical data: more and more of our information is outsourced to be stored by trusted suppliers elsewhere on the planet. The military uses devices that are shielded from most nuclear created Electro Magnetic Pulses (EMPs), but how they are shielded is classified. Faraday Cages have to be completely sealed, like the inside of a microwave oven, to shield what is inside.
Where and how we store critical data is going to get a lot more important, in an era where we are producing more digital information than ever. The inexorable moves to cloud services rely heavily on the idea of resilient, redundant computing power that will always be there when you need it. Infrastructure-as-a-service is critical to cloud computing's momentum, but a solar flare could bring it all down for a very long 'outage' indeed...
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft is in a halo orbit around the Sun-Earth L1 point, the area between the Earth and the Sun where the balance of the (larger) Sun's gravity and the (smaller) Earth's gravity is equal to the centripetal force needed for an object to have the same orbital period in its orbit around the Sun as the Earth, with the result that the object will stay in that relative position, quoting Wikipedia.
This joint European Space Agency & NASA effort has been in orbit since 1995 and is our early warning system alongwith NASA's heliophysics fleet.
When the sun throws off coronal mass ejections (CME), they carry billions of tons of charged particles into space, and if these mammoth clouds are sent in the direction of earth's upper atmosphere, they cause spectacular auroras. In the 1859 event, multi colored Aurorae were seen around the world and people who happened to be awake in the northeastern US could read by their light. The clean up after that event was quicker and simpler than it was in 1989 when a lot of hard questions were asked after infrastructure failure. (There have also been other recent CME events).
Putting aside all the doomsday, 'sky is falling' chicken little hype the internet's greatest exaggerators are so adept at promoting and proselytizing it's far more likely we will have an event which seriously inconvenience us in our future rather than a huge catastrophe. Nevertheless, with the extent to which the world relies on electronic collaboration and connectivity, it would be good to know our core infrastructure was protected from sacrifice to the sun gods. (If we could manage to harness the awesome power of a solar flare it would provide energy for the USA for a million years…)
For now the plan appears to be that the advanced warning of massive solar activity will enable earth's electronic systems to be shut down and disconnected to protect them when the storm hits. We're rapidly heading towards the 'Utopian Nerd Rapture' Singularity - and possibly also a single major event that knocks out all our dependencies - not a good combination…
Happy New Year!