I have always enjoyed astronomy and physics; I like learning about the ways in which the universe works, how we came to exist on earth, and the power and danger of nature. So when I discovered the article Sun Storm Forecast: A Tiny Chance of Havoc, written by Kenneth Chang on the New York Times website, I was intrigued.
The article provides a wide range of information on geometric storms—otherwise known as sun storms. It starts off with a brief history of recently recorded sun storms, which only became apparent with the invention of electrical devices—before electronics a sun storm could go by completely unnoticed aside from a colorful aurora. The largest of these storms recorded, it explains, occurred in 1859 when the most common electrical device was a telegraph. Even then, with such primitive electronics, the electrical surge caused sparks to fly from the telegraphs and set nearby documents aflame. Since then, with the more sophisticate electronics we rely more heavily upon, smaller sun storms have caused even more damage. One case mentioned in the article is that of a sun storm that struck earth on 13 March 1989, Chang writes, “Within minutes, a blackout stretched across the province [Quebec], shutting down businesses, schools, airports and subways until power was restored later that day.”
The level of damage caused in Quebec by a small sun storm has caused some worry in the scientific community, the article explains; what would happen in today’s electric world if a storm of the same magnitude as the one observed in 1859 were to re-occur? Suggestions have been made that a storm like that could take multiple continents off of the electric grid for a month or more, if we are unprepared. Chang quotes one scientist, Mr. Kappenman, trying to put the potential level of devastation into perspective, saying “Think of [hurricane] Sandy magnified a hundredfold.”
Although the likelihood of a large sun storm hitting earth again in the near future is very small, it’s guaranteed that they will occur again. We’ve recently been bombarded with perfect storm scenarios that we have been ill-prepared to react to, such as Katrina and Sandy, or the tsunami that compromised nuclear facilities in Japan. The moral of this article, I believe, is that we can’t afford to procrastinate on planning to react to a storm of this magnitude, or we may find ourselves facing a disaster of unprecedented devastation.