As Y2K approached, many feared a cataclysm that would disrupt life on this planet as we knew it for years and perhaps decades to come. Our growth in reliance on computers in every aspect of our lives from finance to medicine to electric power meant that there was the very real possibility for computer malfunctions on those systems (and there were many) using two digits rather than four to encode year dates. As that date approached, financial institutions, government agencies, and businesses of all kinds scurried to modify their applications to head off potential disaster.
Horror stories abounded, everything from the inability to access bank accounts to the complete failure of the power grid leaving virtually the entire world in darkness. Survivalists prepared for this event, stocking years worth of rations of food supplies, arming themselves to the teeth, and readying caves or fortified compounds in which to live.
Needless to say, nothing happened. As the clock ticked midnight and the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000, the world and life continued as it had in the years preceding this much hyped event.
With much less fanfare, however, comes news that a potential disaster more likely and serious than Y2K’s computer glitches looms in our immediate future. And, that catastrophe is identified by the initialism CME.
CMEs or coronal mass ejections are, in common parlance, solar flares – large clouds of charged particles ejected from the sun. Expanding away from the sun at speeds of up to one million miles per hour, CMEs typically make the 93-million-mile journey to Earth in two to four days. Carrying billions of tons of plasma, CMEs impact the electromagnetic field of the Earth, sometimes spawning geomagnetic storms producing spectacular auroral displays. Stronger solar storms may, according to NASA, cause “adverse impacts to space-based assets and technological infrastructure on Earth.”
While that sounds relatively innocuous, consider that a huge solar storm back in 1859 severely impacted telegraph offices worldwide, causing systems to malfunction, telegraph operators to report electric shocks, and even paper in some of the offices to catch fire. Known as the “Carrington Event” after Richard Carrington, who reported on it, it is the most significant solar storm on record. More recently, in 1989, six million people in Quebec, Canada were left without power for several hours when a solar storm took down a power grid.
Yesterday morning, an extremely powerful solar flare, the largest in four years, erupted. The flare, however, was not directly facing the Earth, making it unlikely that it would cause any significant negative impacts. CME activity, however, runs in eleven-year cycles and is set to peak in 2013. Between now and then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that “a severe solar storm could cause global disruptions in GPS systems, power grids, satellite communications, and airline communications.”
If on the order of the 1859 storm, that would mean that much of the world would find itself without electric power and regional and global communications for the better part of a decade! For lack of fuel, cars, planes, and trains would be at a standstill. News would travel slowly. Supermarket shelves would be bare, as would the shelves and displays of most other types of stores. Clean water and food would be scarce and extremely valuable. Commerce, other than at the most local of levels, would cease. Money would have no value. Travel and life, in general, would be hazardous. Law and order would be replaced by mob rule and a survival of the fittest mentality.
Mankind, proud in its achievements, would be reduced to its most basic animal instincts in the twinkling of an eye and a new age of tribalism would be ushered in. A sobering thought, isn’t it. The next time you text-message a friend, talk on your cell phone, drive your car to the store, or watch television in the comfort of your air-conditioned home, think about that potential massive CME expanding toward Earth. It could happen tomorrow!