Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Out of nowhere

Imagine if you will a bright, sunny day. Not a care in the world. You are enjoying the lovely scenery and maybe even taking in some time at a local park, when someone tells you that the latest and most advanced communications technology is on the fritz. Strange things are happening, and people who operate these devices are even getting shocked if they touch them.

What do you mean, "No signal?"
Sounds like some kind of sci-fi fantasy before the onset of an alien invasion, right? Knock out the infrastructure, then attack. Actually, this scenario is based on a real-life event which took place on September 2, 1859. Back then, the high-tech communications infrastructure - the telegraph - made near-instantaneous continent-wide communications a reality. News traveled from coast to coast in a fraction of the time it would take to travel by rail, horse and rider or sailing ship.

On that date in 1859, a massive solar storm, known as the Carrington Event, took place. During the event, the Sun spit out a tremendous solar flare which made its impact felt on the Earth. Aurorae were seen as far south as Tampico, Mexico and in sub-Sahara Africa, while southern hemispheric auororae were seen as far north as New Guinea. Normally, these phenomena are restricted to the far northern and southern regions, so something of this magnitude must have been tremendous to see.

The aurorae in their glory
Event such as these before 1859 were visual spectacles for sure, but after the invention of the telegraph and the establishment of electrical infrastructure, this became a huge issue. Telegraph operators reported being shocked by their equipment and wire pylons threw sparks. The interruption took a few days to clear, and the impact was recorded by newspapers which had to rely on older technology to try to gather news.

Telegraph operators working on vulnerable equipment
Why bring this up? I think you already know the answer to this one. How much more reliant have we become on electricity and electronic communications in the 150+ years since then? Entire power grids span the world. Cell phone towers now dominate the communications infrastructure. We have built our plans around the idea that our residents will have immediate access to information at a moment's notice, and many of our backup plans have been relegated to the annals of history.

That might be a big mistake. We have seen what can happen during ice storms and hurricanes when power is knocked out to localized areas. And, we know for a fact that on July 23, 2012, a solar flare the size of the Carrington Event occurred, just missing the Earth. Had that event not missed our planet, we could have been looking at an event which could have caused up to $2.6 trillion in worldwide damages, and could have taken years to recover from.

The solar flare of July 2012
This type of event has not gone unnoticed by disaster planners. In fact, FEMA has an entire research division working on space weather, and offers disaster preparedness tips just as it does for earthquakes, tornadoes or other hazards.

While the possibility of another Carrington Event is not huge, it does merit at least a little discussion among the disaster preparedness community.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida


  1. So - if I'm correct - there would be no phones, POTS or otherwise, would work, along with computers, emails, faxes, and pretty much anything electrical etc. Additionally, wouldn't that kind of charge in electrical wires blow out most modern computer chips - there go most late model cars, and satellites too. The more I think about it, the greater the implications become. Basically we'd be reduced to foot pedal operated printing presses like John-Boy Walton.

  2. Depending on the intensity of the event, yes. Pretty much. Some technologies might survive better, and the closer to the Equator, the less the effects would be.