back to article DAYS from end of life as we know it: Boffins tell of solar storm near-miss

Two years ago this week the Sun let off one of its periodic solar flares, and a new analysis of its force shows that human civilization had a very near miss indeed. "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado this week. On 23 July 2012, two coronal mass ejections ( …

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Just goes to show...

How hazardous life on this little rock really is.

So far we've been veerry lucky, but when all your eggs are in one basket, sitting in the middle of a busy highway...

Well at least we have *TOP* people sitting there telling us:

"No no, really, everything's fine, nothing bad has happened to us so far!"

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Re: Just goes to show...

No no, really, everything's fine, nothing bad has happened to us so far!

So long as I die with more money than all of you, everything's fine and who cares about the rest?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just goes to show...

So long as I die with more money than all of you, everything's fine and who cares about the rest?

If I die with any money left then I will have failed. I want to die having just spent my last £ on myself.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just goes to show...

No, success in death is having a large personal debt that is wiped upon you shuffling off your mortal coil.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just goes to show...

I believe in personal responsibility and in paying your debts. I'm happy to just spend what is mine.

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Re: Just goes to show...

"No, success in death is having a large personal debt that is wiped upon you shuffling off your mortal coil."

Yup, ultimately the only way to make a profit is to die in debt, any kind of assets or savings would technically be a loss...

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Re: Just goes to show...

Down vote all you like for pointing it out again, but the "all your eggs in one basket" argument does not hold when you mention solar flares. Why? Show me one other rock in this solar system protected by both an atmosphere and a magnetic field. While moving to another safe place is desired, there is a distinct lack of them to move to.

It's like bailing out of a life raft into the sea...

Argue about safety and protecting the human race, but not by asking it to jump out of a frying pan, into a fire!

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Re: Just goes to show...

There are two great places to move to in relatively easy reach: Ceres and Vesta. You don't need an atmosphere or a magnetic shield. You build underground. What's awesome about Ceres and Vesta is that they have lots of important minerals that we'll need for construction, lots of water and low gravity.

If you put a half kilometer of rock between you and space then you have a lovely shield against all sorts of radiation. Underground, building sealed pressurized environments is easy. There's enough gravity that with some relatively unspecified equipment we can maintain bone density, but still low enough gravity to make getting in and out of the gravity well very inexpensive.

More to the point, both Ceres and Vesta are large enough that they can sustain sizable populations for quite some time...and they are in the middle of the main belt, so sending mining vessels out for additional volatiles or rare metals is cheap and easy.

I don't know why you think a colony has to sit on the surface of some rock with a big gravity well. That seems silly to me.

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Re: Just goes to show...

If I die with any money left then I will have failed. I want to die having just spent my last £ on myself.

For some reason, this reminds me of Johnny Bravo and the puzzle bomb (not that I'm arguing, mind you)...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just goes to show...

If you're going to die in debt, then it's best if we all go out at that time.

"As I stand there at the mailbox, clutching the bankruptcy and foreclosure notices, I look up to see The Doomsday Asteroid streaking across the sky. Frig puffter 'Winning!', I farking WON! Yippie!!!!!" BOOM!

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Re: " You build underground. "

That's a silly idea, and you know it.

It's not that people are against the idea, it's just like FTL travel, it's a "hard problem" which we need to face the facts to. It's not as simple as "just go faster, now you have FTL travel" or "just add more fuel now you reach the next star (the rocket equation)". It's not as simple as "just go to another planet/moon and your safer than on earth".

I said jumping out of a life raft into the sea is a bad idea...

We could build underground on earth too, and survive anything that hits earth, plus earth has more mass and more protection than any moon. Again, we'd lower odds of survival by spreading to a moon, rather than increase. Only if we find additional exploitable (that is usable) resources with self sufficiency can it be an increase to survivability.

"If you put a half kilometer of rock between you and space then you have a lovely shield against all sorts of radiation."

We have a bigger one around earth. However anyone suggesting the Moon plays a part in our survival get's funny looks...

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Re: " You build underground. "

No, you're actually an idiot. There's lots of stuff that could happen to the Earth that would wipe out any underground colonies. Especially if they didn't use a closed system. Plus, Earth is tectonically active; those colonies have extra risks there that they simply don't on Ceres or Vesta. (I never said the moon. The moon is a ridiculous place to colonize.)

Survivability of the species is about not having all your eggs in one basket. That means as many colonies as possible. Earth will eventually die. Period. Nothing we can do will stop that. It will be a lifeless ball of rock a billion years before the sun consumes it. Indeed, according to our best estimates there is less than a billion years left to this planet's ecosphere, probably less than half a billion during which it can support sentient life on the surface.

There is no good reason to stay on Earth except sentimentality. Earth is a great big gravity well where most of the really useful elements for high technology sank to the core long ago. Other than offering a magnetic feild and a trapped Oxygen/Nitrogen atmosphere it doesn't offer a hell of a lot we can't get elsewhere, and it has it's own problems to overcome.

What we need is to have colonies in small gravity wells. Ones where the cost of leaving the gravity well is negligible. We need colonies that can access resources like platinum group metals which make various flavors of high technology much easier. We need colonies that are not only self sufficient, they have enough resources to build colonies of their own.

You make the ridiculous statement that Earth having colony worlds decreases the chances of the human race surviving. You don't explain how that is possible. You just assert.

Would people on the colony world have increased risk compared to Earth? Yes. At first. Eventually, however, they'd adapt, the colony would grow and it would be as safe as Earth. Safer, actually, given that Earth seems to be filled with 7 billion humans all intent on wiping eachother out, while a colony would not only be a smaller and more homogenous population, they'd be focused on survival, not conquest.

And that - right there - is the biggest reason to leave Earth. Even if you have some sort of religious belief which prevents you from understanding that things like metor strikes can and will wipe out Earth-bound humans, the sad truth of it is that we will probably wipe ourselves out on this planet before long.

Humanity must spread to the stars in order to outrun it's own worst nature. It's as simple as that.

Adding colony worlds doesn't reduce the possibility of those on Earth surviving. It does make Earth irrelevant to humanity's survival in the long term.

The fact that you have such a fantastically poor understanding of science that you A) think we should live on the surface of a planet in a big gravity well as a colony world and B) think that a colony is particularly hard (as opposed to merely outrageously expensive) means you shouldn't be allowed to have this conversation at all.

We know how to survive in space. The #1 problem with space colonization isn't survival. It's that getting the materials needed to survive requires hauling them out of this accursed gravity well. Fortunately, that isn't a problem, long term.

We can send robots to Vesta and Ceres to refine the elements required for survival, construct structures, and prepare the way for colonists. We can - with enough money - assemble a ship that either has a massive fission-based power source which could generate a magnetic shield, or enough lead shielding to protect colonists on the journey.

That is all that we need. Once on Vesta or Ceres, with an army of mining robots at their command, the colonists will be able to create new ships and new colonies for a fraction the cost that could be accomplished on Earth. They will never want for space to expand, never have to murder eachother over ideology. If they want a place to practice their own vision of how things should be, they can just pack up and go. The entire universe will be waiting for them to do so.

Earth is a cage, not a lifeboat. This big, fat gravity well is a prison. The goal is not - and never should be - to create new Earths. It is to move beyond the need for such an incubator, and to explore the stars without the requirement for one large ball of rock filled with billions of us that can't get along.

All we need is that first little push. Not the moon, or Mars...but to new resources within easy reach and whose acquisition won't trap us for millennia. Earth is just one planet. It's not relevant in the grand scheme of things. Try not to get too attached.

We don't want to go to another planet because it will be safer for the individual than being here. The individual doesn't matter any more than the planet does. We want to make colonies both because we want to explore and because those on a colony world are safe when something does eventually happen to Earth.

Are the colony worlds more likely to experience catastrophic problems than Earth? Yes. But enough of them ensures humanity's survival. Whereas staying on Earth alone ensures humanity's demise. Eventually, all planets - and all colonies - will die. Every single person, no matter where they are, will die. But our species might survive, if we spread far enough - and fast enough - to outrun not only nature's worst tantrums...but ourselves as well.

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Re: " You build underground. "

Spot on, Trevor. There is no serious problem to which the answer is not "We need to get out into space as fast as we can".

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Anonymous Coward

Re: " You build underground. "

Trevor, I really enjoyed reading your stuff there. I like sci-fi and it was right up my street. I know that its not fiction, its the (future) reality.

My only advice is not to spoil your writing by calling someone else an idiot. You put all that great stuff in your post, but then choose to add a schoolboy insult. Your arguements are good, you dont need to resort to that sort of emotive reply, I believe you are above that.

Good stuff all in all.

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Re: " You build underground. "

I'm sorry, it's a personality flaw. I'm functionally incapable of lying, and as a consequence I am functionally incapable of being politically correct. I say what I think, and as such am generally uncensored. In fact "you're an idiot" was positively polite, compared to the raw version that appeared in my brain after reading that fellow's reply.

I get the whole "you're supposed to look better than the other guy by being all prim and proper and grey poupon and professionalism." I'm just actually incapable of it.

I could say "I disagree with you so thoroughly that, upon careful examination of your response, I believe that there is something fundamentally flawed in your reasoning process such that it affects your ability to perceive and act upon reality in a logical and rational manner." The problem is that sounds haughty and pompous and I'm not entirely certain the individual in question would get it. "You're an idiot" is more pithy, but accurate and bears with it social connotations of exclusion, ostracisation and even mockery that I really do kind of want to include in my riposte.

Does the desire to fire that barb make me a bad person? Almost certainly yes. I try to be a good person, but I'm still very human. I don't tolerate well people who are selfish. I hate them on so fundamental a level you'd think it was genetic.

The individual in question's responses indicated a selfishness that incensed me. His responses were individual-centric and his vision narrow, even mundane. The scope of his understanding was small and so he tried to reduce everyone else to his level.

When talking about something so critical - and so essentially non-individual - as the long term survival of our species, to insist on the scope of the one to the detriment of the many is infuriating. It's like being in the middle of a conversation about diverse stellar phenomena and having some dude walk in and say "I saw a black hole explode once." It's preposterous on it's face, and so jarring as to be almost physically painful.

Maybe I wouldn't have been so petty if he hadn't begun his comment "That's a silly idea, and you know it." Maybe. Starting his response with that line made me feel a lot like Foghorn Leghorn trying to have a serious conversation while Henry Hawk keeps trying to challenge him to a fight. "Go on, git, ya bother me!"

I care nothing for the individual claiming the singularity is about to explode. By tomorrow I'll have forgotten then exist at all. But I absolutely want to make it clear in no uncertain terms to anyone reading this thread that what they're espousing is at best horrifically misinformed and at worst purposefully misleading. "You're an idiot" seems a particularly expeditious means by which to make my feelings in that matter known.

Now, as to why I feel the need to jump in when someone is wrong on the internet...when you solve that one, I'll be quite interested. I have narrowed it down to comments made as factual statements that are both demonstrably incorrect and where decisions made on the basis of those incorrect statements would negatively affect large numbers of people. For reasons beyond my ken, those comments bother me a great deal and I am compelled to attempt to set them right...

...but I am still work on "politely".

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Re: " You build underground. "

I suppose the question is, do probabilities stack like that? If we keep adding the probability of a location suffering an extinction event (natural, human, disease, economic etc), does it decrease as we add more locations, or just keep the average?

"The fact that you have such a fantastically poor understanding of science that you A) think we should live on the surface of a planet in a big gravity well as a colony world and B) think that a colony is particularly hard (as opposed to merely outrageously expensive) means you shouldn't be allowed to have this conversation at all."

A) Please support this argument with an understanding of biology and it's dependencies. Using robotics to collect materials is a great boon to us in low G, using humans increases a risks in total.

B) Getting to space is hard. It's not just expensive. It's brute force effort. It's expensive not in just monetary terms, but in time and resources (both physical power/energy/materials and time/research/planning). We can pull it off, but again, it's diverted resources that take excessive time-scales for a return investment. That increases risks, not reduces them. It may pay off, but it's a gamble, not an "insurance", unless we have the surplus for it.

We have proof of A) in our current space exploration. We have proof of B) in the calculated return times for our nearest star (or Mars if you wish, it's still resting at 6 months 1 way trip at best theoretical transit times).

Science is not a failing here, mine or others, but feel free to expand on the ideas and how it might work in the future.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: " You build underground. "

During the past couple of centuries, many of Europe's poor decided to pack up and move to a new empty continent across the Atlantic Ocean. Did they find relief from their problems or did they just move them with them? It's definitely NOT my choice of destinations. 90% of the immigrants were the losers of Europe. The other 10% went there to exploit them. They have interbred, As a result we have an entire nation of pushy losers. Can you imagine the results if the richest pushy losers moved to Ceres or Vesta leaving everybody else to be wiped out by a solar flare and nobody left to moderate their behaviour.

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Ouch

So basically, worldwide EMP. Nice! I would be out of money, out of a job, and everything kicked back to the stone age! Hopefully we'll learn to shield our planet from those CMEs before one actually hits us...

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Windows

Re: Ouch

That's pure Hollywood drama. I demand Bratt Pitt!

So basically, worldwide EMP.

Not at all. Collapse of large parts of the electrical grid due to induction in large conductor loops, sure. Cities will become a bit difficult to live in for a few months; it would actually bring home to the yanks what it means to be on the receiving end of a "shock and awe" and a "mission accomplished". On the other hand, what will be up pretty much immediately will be GPS and battery-powered computers. Until the batteries run out, that is.

Meanwhile, I hear the Ebola breakout in Sierra Leone is intensifying...

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Re: Ouch

GPS wouldn't survive. The satelites would get fried. Also, most electronic that isn't shielded would also fail as induction currents from the magnetic storm we'd get from the CME hitting fries all the delicate components. So no more computers even if they aren't plugged.

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Mushroom

Re: Ouch

The satellite that was directly in the way was hit and it wasn't fried. The Navstar sats' primary job is to locate where atomic bombs explode by timing their EMP. I expect they are very well shielded. Of course things that depend on cheap GPS receivers to work properly would have a problem. That includes things like most modern mobile phone networks as well as some newer civil emergency communications systems and of course much of the power grid and parts of the finance community.

Odd enough, the core of the internet won't care as the core bits are connected by fiber and the core routers tend to be very well shielded and are running off data center power. Too bad most of the oceanic links would get their amps fried and there aren't enough spares to fix even a small fraction of them.

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Facepalm

Re: Ouch

>The satelites would get fried

LOLNO

> Most electronic that isn't shielded would also fail as induction currents from the magnetic storm we'd get from the CME hitting fries all the delicate components

Someone is confusing CMEs with a Magnetar going off 10 light-years away and it ain't me.

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Re: Ouch

"Too bad most of the oceanic links would get their amps fried and there aren't enough spares to fix even a small fraction of them."

I wouldn't expect EMP to penetrate more than a few feet into salt water, let alone miles, so the oceanic links should be fine.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ouch

"Odd enough, the core of the internet won't care as the core bits are connected by fiber and the core routers tend to be very well shielded and are running off data center power. Too bad most of the oceanic links would get their amps fried and there aren't enough spares to fix even a small fraction of them."

The amps would be ok given they're under water. What would suffer are the SLTs (Submarine Laser Terminals) onshore and power injectors. Powering amp chains along a 6500km+ cable takes quite a lot of power. Core terrestrial bits may be connected by fibre, but again there are amp/regen sites every 60-80km or so. Those contain rather sensitive components and need power.

Power would be the killer. Datacentres and amp sites would have batteries and hopefully stand-by generators, as would data centres. They can run for xx hours until utility power is restored. If it's not, then there would be a lot of demand for diesel. But if there's no power, how long would diesel supplies run for? No power, no pumps for oil, water, gas and a potential series of cascading failures. Lots of things may need replacing, and in the interests of efficiency, businesses moved to 'just in time' and often reduced spares holdings. A Carrington repeat would leave us living in interesting times.

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Re: Ouch

I don't think it would be as serious as people like to fantasise about.

The (UK) national grid looked at the 1989 storm, and then planned to deal with a storm of ten times the severity. If absolutely *none* of the mitigation measures planned are taken and they carry on as usual then we might lose 62% of the grid in England & Wales, this representing the "edge" of the network in low population areas.

Estimated times for repairs to everything is 1-2 months with the prime difficulty apparently being to move sodding huge transformers around the country by road since obviously in such a national grade disaster the military wouldn't be told to airlift the equipment.

I'm still trying to figure out where people get the doom and gloom stuff from, other than helpless user fantasies that computers might vanish overnight. It's certainly not from rational consideration of the issues concerned since people whining about the imminent destruction of everything haven't even looked at the grids DR/BCM plans.

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Anonymous Coward

"The (UK) national grid looked at the 1989 storm..."

Meanwhile in the USA...

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Paris Hilton

Probably a stupid question

Would a CME affect electrical systems if they were switched off during the event?

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Re: Probably a stupid question

No. It wouldn't even be affected if switched on.

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Re: Probably a stupid question

I herewith declare the downvoters as retards and fools.

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Re: Probably a stupid question

"I herewith declare the downvoters as retards and fools."

Although I fit both of those categories, I feel no need to downvote. Does this mean I'm cured?

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Re: Probably a stupid question

I love the demonstrated understanding. If quizzed, I BET those sort of idiots would cite the fact that during the carrington event low voltage telegraphs still worked with their normal power source disconnected. I mean, lol? Total lack of understanding.

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power grid

New Scientist did an interesting piece a couple of years ago on what might happen if a large CME hit the power grid. Let's just say it wouldn't be trivial to recover from. China would probably be hardest hit due to higher voltage used in the transmission grid, but multiple cascading failures would take quite a while to recover from since we don't tend to have many spare HT transformers lying around and pumping oil tends to need electricity ...

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Re: power grid

"Let's just say it wouldn't be trivial to recover from"

I would have thought we'd have recent evidence to prove the claimed level of problems with power grids, if the report is accurate that the chances of a Carrington event are 12% per decade, since we've had national electricity distribution networks for many, many decades. Either we have been improbably lucky, or the (by and large) lack of grid problems caused by CME suggest to me that the researchers are fluffing this risk up (particularly since less powerful CME are common as muck). I also suspect that the impact of a major CME would have been over-estimated by New Sensationalist, because the modern grid is equipped with fast reacting surge control systems to protect against far more common modes of failures and lightning strikes.

I'd accept that satellites could end up as toast, and that some unshielded terrestrial electronics would be at risk, but this whole doomsday stuff, nah.

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Re: power grid

Other way around. The threat of a CME is that it sets up induction currents in large-scale conductors, unlike an emp. Your electrical goods will be fine, especially if they’re switched off. The grid will fry no matter what.

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Re: power grid

The biggest effect of such an event was to cause a 9-hour blackout in Quebec in March 1989. Though a lengthy power outage during a Canadian winter is no fun, there was no catastrophe and the time to recover was almost entirely explained by the need to reset huge numbers of circuit breakers that did their job and protected the underlying system. It's claimed that the local geology exacerbated the effects.

The Carrington event was orders of magnitude larger, but the fact that we haven't experienced any significant impact from solar storms for 25 years strongly suggests that either the effects are less than predicted or that such events are actually quite rare.

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Boffin

The danger is scale and duration.

As long as the induced voltages and currents are below the design thresholds, the major circuit breakers will do their jobs and open in time to save the physical infrastructure.

However, if either are sufficiently higher than the breaker can handle, the arc may not be broken and will do serious damage to the breaker and protected equipment.

For an example of a faulty breaker doing this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIkNY5xjy5k

This breaker had a fault that meant it was unable to douse the initial arc when interrupting. The arc was only stopped by opening the upstream breaker - so if said upstream breaker failed as well, the grid would be in real trouble.

The breakers are set up so they shouldn't all open simultaneously, which offers protection against short-duration events like lightning strikes but a CME-induced event could last a long time.

And that would be bad.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: power grid

> Either we have been improbably lucky, or the (by and large) lack of grid problems caused by CME suggest to me that the researchers are fluffing this risk up

You need to brush up on your maths. The odds of an event in any decade is 12% and there have been 15 decades since the last event. The chances of this occurring are (1-0.12)^15 = 0.15 or about 15% - roughly the same odds as rolling a six, not very improbable at all.

If we get to 2100 without one of these events occurring then you could consider it improbable as the probability of that occurring is less than 5%

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Re: power grid

Carrington happened in 1859, which was not a few decades ago.

12% seems unlikely, but not quite impossible. Before this story, the more common estimate was that Carringtons happened once every century, which seems more believable.

[doomporn] Of course the next event might be even worse than the 1859 one.[/doomporn]

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Re: power grid

The odds aren't just based on the last time such a CME hit earth but also on the last time the sun produced a CME of the magnitude of the carrington event. The last of those was in July 2012 according to wikipedia.

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Re: power grid

Riley went through the last 50 years of solar data and calculated that the chances of a Carrington-class storm hitting Earth over a decade were 12 per cent.

12% seems unlikely, but not quite impossible. Before this story, the more common estimate was that Carringtons happened once every century, which seems more believable.

Well, If the chances are 12% per decade, then the chances of at least one per century are roughly 1-(1-0.12)^10 = 1-(0.88)^12 = 1-0.2785 +~72%. The chances of exactly one per century are roughly 38%. The chances of more than two per century are only ~10.9%

With these chances, over time, you'd average ~1.2 per century.

So there's really not much difference between a 12% chance per decade and an average of one per century. (The difference would be one extra event every 500 years, on average.)

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Re: power grid

I agree with Ledswinger. 0.88 to the power 5 is about 0.5, which gives a roughly 50:50 chance of a Carrington class event since the sixties and presumably a much higher chance of smaller events that would be a regular problem in the grid, even if they weren't fatal to it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: power grid

> much higher chance of smaller events

Geomagnetic storms are measured using the change in the horizontal component of the Earth's magnetic field at the magnetic equator. The unit is the nano-Tesla (nT).

There are 3 classes of storm:

moderate - between -50 and -100 nT

intense - between -100 and -250 nT

severe - more than -250 nT

The 1989 storm that took out the power in Quebec peaked at about -300 nT.

The Carrington Event in 1859 was estimated at about -1760 nT

Compared to the Carrington Event, all the geomagnetic storms have been small events.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: power grid

Use Poisson distribution, with rate constant 0.12/decade

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Anonymous Coward

Re: power grid

Whoops - correction, exponential distribution (related to Poisson)

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Re: power grid

I don't think it matters what the voltage levels are. If you have conductors above ground a CME will induce currents to a point where it burn out transformers in switch yards every where the CME is the most intense. These transformers will take years to replace. You don't keep a spares like that lying round they just cost to much.

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Pretty high risk

This sounds much more worthy of preparing for than Global Warming.

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Re: Pretty high risk

That is a false choice. Both are worth preparing for.

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Re: Pretty high risk

Nonsense. This is mathematically predictable and we know the seriousness of the consequences, and we can even have a plan for what to do about it. How can half a million eco-warriors, eco-consultants, eco-development campaigners and other hangers-on possibly make a living out of that kind of certainty?

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How did the STEREO satellite survive the blast?

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Shields up!

Two thing - it's designed for it, and secondly a lot of the danger comes from the way the charged particles interact with our magnetosphere.

So yes, the Earth's planetary shield can make it worse!

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