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 ( …

  1. Captain DaFt

    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!"

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      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?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        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.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          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.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            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.

          2. Lusty

            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...

            1. Anonymous Coward
              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!

    2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      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!

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        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.

        1. DropBear Silver badge

          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)...

        2. TechnicalBen Silver badge

          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...

          1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

            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.

            1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

              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".

            2. Anonymous Coward
              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.

              1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

                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".

            3. TechnicalBen Silver badge

              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.

            4. Anonymous Coward
              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.

  2. Daniel B.

    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...

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      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...

      1. Mad Chaz

        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.

        1. -tim
          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.

          1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

            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.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              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.

              1. Peter2 Silver badge

                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.

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

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

                  Meanwhile in the USA...

        2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          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.

  3. Paratrooping Parrot
    Paris Hilton

    Probably a stupid question

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

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Probably a stupid question

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

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Probably a stupid question

        I herewith declare the downvoters as retards and fools.

        1. GitMeMyShootinIrons

          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?

          1. Peter2 Silver badge

            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.

  4. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

    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 ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      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.

      1. Graham Dawson

        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.

        1. Chris Miller

          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.

      2. Richard 12 Silver badge
        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.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        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%

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: power grid

          Use Poisson distribution, with rate constant 0.12/decade

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: power grid

            Whoops - correction, exponential distribution (related to Poisson)

      4. TheOtherHobbes

        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]

        1. Graham Dawson

          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.

        2. Steve Knox

          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.)

      5. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        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.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          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.

    2. RickWB

      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.

  5. DocJD

    Pretty high risk

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

    1. Adam 1 Silver badge

      Re: Pretty high risk

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

    2. Flatpackhamster

      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?

  6. Anonymous Coward 101

    How did the STEREO satellite survive the blast?

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      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!

      1. phil dude
        Boffin

        Re: Shields up!

        I was thinking the warning could be used to invoke some sort of contingency...

        ...then I looked at this website (spaceweatherlive.com) and the 2012 one would have given us 18 hours!!!!

        Bill Bryson in his excellent book (youtube clip of simulation) "A short history of nearly everything" points out the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs (i.e. the Manson crater in Iowa) would be almost impossible to observe in advance. He then points out that even if we did see it, we no longer have the ability to reach it or even a meaningful method movement of changing its course....

        Sobering and awe inspiring stuff. The context of the bat-shit crazy things that humans contrive to do to each other every day, is a reminder of our insignificance to the universe...

        We are very, very very, very lucky to have been born!

        P.

        PS. I had to check who narrated the UK version (I found it was Richard Matthews aka Simon Vance), as I had flashbacks of Bag-puss intially....!

    2. mr.K

      By not being there.

      The STEREO satellites are orbiting the sun at nearly the Earth's orbit. One is a little bit further out, the other is a little bit further in. This means that they are moving away from Earth in either direction. The idea is to be able to see the sun, and then flares, from different angles at the same time giving us a form of 3D view of the flares. So they survived the blast by not being hit by it due to being far away.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
        Paris Hilton

        Taking out meteors

        I've always wondered about that line that's always trotted out in the movies about shooting an asteroid/meteor would just leave us facing a *lot* of deadly missiles rather than just one.

        I would have thought (with my admittedly O Level physics knowledge) that increasing the surface area of an incoming object by shattering it would be a good thing - more surface area would mean more of it burning up as it hits the atmosphere.

        I understand that it would mean that there would be more impacts over a wider area, but in terms of the Earth, again I think this would be better than one big impact surely?

        1. mr.K

          Re: Taking out meteors

          Speculations follow:

          If an object is big enough the atmosphere doesn't really affect it much. Most of it will reach Earth regardless. If you break it up into a few pieces the individual pieces would still be so big that they would reach the surface fairly intact. Thus you have you made your problem worse.

          If you break it up into a large number pieces where all the pieces are so small that they burn up before impact or at least have a significantly part torn of then you would have lessened then problem.

          1. David Dawson

            Re: Taking out meteors

            if an object is truly that big, then if you were to break it up and the earth were to be hit by the resulting buckshot, we'd be burned to a crisp by the firestorms that would sweep the globe as the debris entered the atmosphere and heats it up hundreds of degrees due to the thousands of compression waves all at once. So it wouldn't really help....

    3. Joe Gurman

      Reaaly quite simple

      There was no "blast." A CME is a vast, outward ejection of plasma and magnetic field, but at a density lower than the best lab vacuum on earth. For fast CMEs, and the 2012 July 22/23 event was a very fast one, the front is moving faster than the Alfvén speed in the ambient solar wind plasma, so a shock front builds up. The front contained higher densities (by a factor of two or three) and concentrated magnetic fields, as well as charged particles (protons and some heavier ions) accelerated to high energies.

      Nothing about those conditions is likely to affect a spacecraft designed and qualified to work outside the earth's magnetosphere. As far as I know, STEREO-Ahead suffered only a tiny decrease in solar array outage coincident with the shock passage, most likely due to the energetic particle damage to the silicon.

      CMEs get dangerous to life in space when they feature shock fronts that entrain high solar energetic particle concentrations, and CME interactions with planetary magnetospheres can induce currents in (in the earth's case) the oceans and solid earth, preferentially in certain geologies for the latter, hence the danger to electric power generation hardware in certain places (e.g. Québec, which sits atop the Laurentian Shield) at high geomagnetic latitudes. The potential hazard from an historically strong event is that those effects could be seen at lower latitudes, but that is not known from historical experience. The record from the 1840s is that geomagnetically induced currents were experienced in telegraph lines as far south as the low 40s of latitude, which is also about the southern limit of telephone trunk line damage in the 20th century during events with under half the current-inducing potential of the 2012 event. I think it's fair to say we don't know what would happen with a ring current as strong as the one Prof. Baker and co-authors predicted for a 2012-like event hitting the earth's magnetosphere. (And from what it's worth, it's a 50-50 proposition: if the magnetic field in the CME is primarily parallel to the earth's dipole field orientation, it's a dud; only if it's antiparallel, as in the case of the 2012 event, do things get exciting.)

      Another reason STEREO felt little, if any effects, is that the analogy to nuclear EMPs is a very poor one. The shock fronts from nuclear detonations are much more concentrated (thinner and denser) than one driven by a fast CME in the solar wind, and the magnetic fields invalided are much weaker. And even EMP effects on electrical systems can be largely countered by existing surge suppression techniques if one incorporates faster responding suppressors than most household surge suppressors offer.

  7. Ian Emery Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Would a tin foil hat help??

    We're DOOOOMED I tell ya, DOOOOMED.

    (The nearest we have to a solar pimple icon)

  8. RobZee
    Mushroom

    Even Worse

    If a super flare were to erupt:-

    "If a super flare were to erupt from the Sun (which scientists predicts should occur every 800-5,000 years) then astronauts and air travellers would receive a lethal dose of radiation, all artificial satellites would be destroyed and global electricity transmission would cease. A solar super flare would send humanity back to the Stone Age."

    Scary stuff!

    1. ionracer24

      Re: Even Worse

      No, they wouldnt.....

  9. Stuart Halliday

    Time to dig out my Valves. I knew there was a reason why I kept them.

  10. David Roberts Silver badge

    Water supplies?

    Just thinking - there was a time when water was mainly supplied by gravity from water towers.

    Now AFAIK these have been mainly replaced by electric pumps.

    So there is no longer a short term reserve if the grid goes out.

    Bad planning?

    1. Adam 1 Silver badge

      Re: Water supplies?

      I can't comment for everywhere but gravity fed is still preferred. In this way the pumps don't need to be strong enough to maintain full pressure during peak demand, just enough to replenish across the day/week. This permits smaller pumps and/or off peak power to be used.

    2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Water supplies?

      Some of us are on wells. We already know what to do. We'll be fine.

      Drop by if you need a glass of water.

      1. Evil Auditor Silver badge

        Re: Water supplies?

        Drop by if you need a glass of water.

        JeffyPoooh, you aren't American, are you? Otherwise you'd be armed to your teeth to protect your well from every intruder. Anyway, around here it's also wells. And if someone makes it to my place he/she's very welcome to get some water, even more than a glass.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Water supplies?

        Some of us are on wells. We already know what to do. We'll be fine.

        I know plenty of folks with wells who only have electric pumps. Me, I'd insist on a hand pump, just in case. (I'd also have a generator, but I wouldn't want to depend on it for who knows how long.)

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Water supplies?

      there was a time when water was mainly supplied by gravity from water towers.

      Now AFAIK these have been mainly replaced by electric pumps.

      So there is no longer a short term reserve if the grid goes out.

      In Michigan, municipalities are now required to have a 48-hour (I think) reserve in the water supply in the event of power failure. That was instituted after the 2003 Northeast blackout. The city I live in had to build a second water tower to comply.

      Power outages that last for a day or longer are common here, even in cities, due to weather conditions and vulnerable overhead lines. The ice storm of 22 December 2013 left many people in Michigan without power for a week or longer, including some in Lansing. And Lansing is not ... comfortable, shall we say ... in December.

  11. Fedup

    "Time to dig out my Valves. I knew there was a reason why I kept them."

    Is it time to put Colossus on hot standby ? The computer guys at Bletchley Park could start a whole new DR business to fund the museum. Come to think of it , with the science museum having a working Babbage difference engine, even if the worst happens our wonderful leaders could continue to calculate the Nation Debt - or would that take second priority to calculating their popularity rating?

  12. Brandon 2
    Mushroom

    a near miss

    If something nearly misses, isn't that a hit?

    /pedant

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: a near miss

      'tis but a flesh wound.

    2. Lobrau
      Alert

      Re: a near miss

      Yes but a near miss != nearly missing

  13. Mike Banahan

    Loss of GPS

    My suspicion is that the EMP risk is heavily overstated and that most electronics on earth would survive. Some power grids might well have trouble for a while and it would be an important lesson learnt in a number of developed economies that their infrastructure may not be as stable as they think. We have historical precedent to go on for that.

    I am willing to bet though, that if whatever-it-is fried the majority of the GPS satellite constellation, and that GPS then became unavailable, a whole lot of trouble might come up that we are poorly prepared for.

    Most of the world's trade is carried in large ships. As far as I can tell, once-mandatory knowledge of how to navigate without GPS is no longer a requirement, nor a skill in evidence amongst the majority of crew, even if they could find the sextant and blow the dust off it. Being lost at sea is NOT a pleasant experience (and that I can attest to from first-hand knowledge). I'm practically certain that a substantial loss of GPS would be a very serious issue for the bulk of maritime activities.

    Aircraft supposedly have backup for GPS navigation - I'd love to see the effects on the typical flight-deck though if you popped the fuses for them and told them they had lost the GPS and would have to live with whatever INS they have, plus dead-reckoning and direction-finding from beacons. There might be a lot of sorting out of sheep from goats all of a sudden.

    The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a study (http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Global_Navigation_Systems.pdf) which highlights some of society's dependencies on GPS not only for positioning but also for the provision of accurate time signals (which, for example, the Airwave comms system for fire, police and ambulance is now dependent on). It's likely that the loss of GPS will cause some substantial headaches for a while.

    Who is willing to bet that any proper DR procedures are in place for this kind of thing and exercises carried out to see what the effect would be before the event actually happens?

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Loss of GPS

      The actual effects of large scale electromagnetic phenomenon on modern electronics would suck. Major critical systems would probably be mostly OK, but not so much for the 5.5 zillion little things that define much of modern society.

      There's a price to be paid for all the incredibly affordable technology that surrounds us. That price is the fact that 98% of the electronics on Earth are absolute garbage and are less resilient to outside energy spikes than Victorian telegraph systems. So your neighborhood nuclear plant probably won't meltdown, but everything from your coffee pot to electric toothbrush, thermostat in your house and the ignition system of your car won't work. Hell, even toilets in below grade bathrooms won't work because the shit grinder and pump that carries the shit up won't be working.

      The Royal Academy paper on the issue is probably correct, ICBM's won't fly and dams won't unexpectedly go to full release; catastrophic sorts of things. Humans deal with catastrophe fairly well really. What Humans don't do well is is cope with inconvenience. Kettle won't get hot, ok. Have to use candles to see inside your house, Ok. No heat, meh, got blankets. Humans will deal for a while, but sooner or later somebody's Electronic Battleship game will fail to make a satisfying noise when the hit an opponent and 30 seconds later everybody in the house has been murdered.

      It's nothing like a wartime situation where there's a bad guy and things are truly life and death. It's pure chaos with no visible source and and people simply don't deal well with that. They have to have someone to blame. It won't be nuclear war, or a pandemic, solar flare or alien invasion that destroys mankind. It'll be set off when one person is pushed to breaking when they can't heat their tea.

  14. John Savard Silver badge

    Odds?

    I think that if the odds of a Carrington event were that high - 12 percent at every solar maximum - we would have had one by now. And it seems like there should have been several dinosaur-killer asteroids since the rise of human civilization as well. So I think that science hasn't yet put the odds in proportion of the things we are now seeing with better detection.

    But just in case, the world's governments should build deep underground metal-lined storage areas... where the obsolete computers that people keep throwing away could be stored. That way we could rebuild civilization more quickly after something like that! Computers that are 10 years out of date sure beat the stone age!

    1. Ian Emery Silver badge

      Re: Odds?

      ANd how would we power these old PCs?? The grid is entirely controlled by computers these days.

      BTW, the US grid is ancient and falling apart, so it at least could do with some major upgrading; perhaps this report has that in mind.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Power Supplies

        My brother has a stream that powers a water turbine that generates 4.5Kw 24/7.

        I can walk to his place in 30 minutes.

        That good enough for you?

        1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

          Re: Power Supplies

          Can I be your friend?

      2. ionracer24

        Re: Odds?

        Most of the critical systems have back ups, ie diesel etc....

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Odds?

      > I think that if the odds of a Carrington event were that high - 12 percent at every solar maximum - we would have had one by now

      1) We did have one in 1859 - the Carrington Event, and we've been much more reliant on technology in every decade since then.

      2) Why does it matter what you "think" when you could have instead calculated the odds of not having had an event since then as ~15%. (1-0.12)^15

      3) If the odds are wrong, e.g. only 5% per decade, it is still roughly 50/50 that you would have one in 150 years. It will still cause problems when it eventually does happen.

      1. Roger Varley

        Re: Odds?

        Isn't there a second factor that needs to be considered here. The plasma can be ejected in any direction from the surface of the sun. It's only going to be a problem if we're in the way.

    3. Don Jefe

      Re: Odds?

      A civilization that has been shattered by some cataclysmic event needs computers about as much as I need a third leg. Computers do one of two things, they organize and manage the physical activities of people in a form of displaced labor or they facilitate the movement of information that only has value if the civilization hasn't been shuttered.

      A computer can't do a god damn thing you know. We use them as tools, but without everything else else that's required for civilization the four million gallons of diesel plumbed into my backup lawn sprinkler system is a fuck of a lot more valuable.

      A modern catastrophe like you're talking about would put Mexico, parts of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay at the top of the global power scene. They're the only ones left that actually know how to farm at scale. Modern farmers are underpaid accounts payable people, not the bringers of food. All of England would freeze to death because they've got no real miners left and I'm not sure Pit Ponies exist anywhere anymore, wrwyuustqut (which I believe is Welsh for haha) and there sure as hell aren't any trees over there for fuel.

      My point, is that Mankind will certainly survive about anything, but it would take a long time before computers were helpful again.

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Odds?

        " wrwyuustqut (which I believe is Welsh for haha)"

        More or less! :-)

  15. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Preparation

    As we would presumably have hours to prepare for this, surely damage could be minimised by a controlled grid shutdown? It should not be too hard to devise a contingency plan to warn everybody, shut down the grid and all transmissions, and then restart. We would lose GPS, and presumably Sky (so not all bad then), there might be short term food shortages as the supermarkets adapted to rely on driver skills, and there would be a blip in deaths. But civilisation should continue.

    This is a more likely threat than MAD, and more preventable than an asteroid collision, so which politician will try and get some brownie points by actually doing a little forward thinking for once?

    1. Jan 0
      Devil

      Re: Preparation

      Oops, I upvoted you instead of hitting reply.

      Do you really think that power companies and emergency services, let alone governments and police forces would be able to agree to such a shutdown before the CME hit? I can just picture "people in authority" sitting in dark rooms working on the first draft of public proclamations. At the same time I can imagine the barbarian hordes quickly realising that this is an opportunity to cross borders wielding cutlasses.

      Time to welcome our Stone Age overlords?

    2. mr.K

      Re: Preparation

      I am not sure actually shutting it down would prevent a lot of the damage. The thing is that we are not talking about an EMP, but induction currents in wire. The longer the wire the bigger the current. This will thus not hit small scale electronics, but long wires. Of course any electronics which are attached to a long wire could get fried. So unplugging things could save them. The problem is that taking down the grid doesn't physically taking it down and cutting it up in pieces. So we could end up with frying the power lines themselves.

      I do imagine that it is possible to save transformers and generators though by unplugging them from the power lines, if we are able to do that. And that would be a huge gain. Fixing the power lines would be a small job compared to that of winding new transformers and generators for the power plants and distribution.

      Note 1: I am not sure about any of this.

      Note 2: Except note 1.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Preparation

        You can easily do the equivalent of taking the grid down and cutting it into pieces by opening the breakers. The grid can be isolated down to quite a fine grained level; why do you think power cuts can affect a single street? Whether there would then be enough arc paths to create destructive circulating currents I don't know. I am not an expert, just someone who has worked for a few years on lightning and EMP protection, so I do know a ceraunic index from an eddy current.

        An isolated transformer in its case should be quite EMP proof, it is the control gear I would worry about. On the other hand, replacing power lines is not a small job. There is a tremendous amount of wire up there and it has to be hauled through and aligned by highly skilled technicians. Manufacturing all that wire and replacing it, if it was necessary, could take many years.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. doomflare

    Also relevant, in the event the grid goes down for more than about a week many nuclear power plants have spent fuel pools that could dry out and then catch fire due to running out of diesel for the backup generators.

    The reactors themselves should survive but core damage would likely occur if power wasn't restored within a couple of days.

    There are also a fair number of large reprocessing plants with high level tanks requiring continuous cooling such as Sellafield, La Hague, etc.

    Any one of these tanks rupturing due to internal heating would cause a nuclear death cloud that would dwarf Chernobyl by an order of magnitude.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Re. doomflare

      I think you will find the Army has both EMP-hardened vehicles and old vehicles with mechanical injection. The resources would be there to get fuel to the generators. The most technically difficult job might be to connect enough load to the nuclear plants to allow them to ramp up again, thus providing the power to keep things going. Perhaps we should put enormous coils of resistance wire near nuclear plants that can absorb half a gigawatt.*

      *This is not a serious suggestion. But I will mention that many years ago a colleague visited an R&D department at a well known firm of consulting engineers, and found that their small engine test system, instead of using hydraulic dynamometers, used alternators connected to big coils of resistance wire out the back. To vary the load, the operator had to go and move an enormous croc clip along a coil. Kids, do not try this at home..

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Re. doomflare

        It's all very well saying that the Army could deliver fuel etc. but the communications disruption will be massive. I wouldn't bank on everything working like clockwork in an emergency, this isn't Germany you know!

  18. IanTP

    Bollocks

    Biggest words here were IF IT HIT, it didn't, so not a problem, far too much of this IF, could, maybe etc culture, I'm having a beer :)

  19. Mark 85 Silver badge
    Pint

    With all the doom being prophesized, I think I'll just head to the pub for tall, cold one. We live and we die. The catch is live like today is the last day. Maybe I'll have a couple of tall, cold ones then.

  20. Richard Pauli

    EMP and nuclear meltdown...

    Umm. Yes there are 435 nuclear power plants world wide. If cooling water is interrupted, I think meltdown begins right away, and then only the thickness of the concrete determines when it breaches and blows chunks.

    I don't think we are ready for 200 or more simultaneous meltdowns. Has Hollywood got word of this? Because lots of doomer web sites have got this. When it comes to facing risk, are we really that dumb?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: EMP and nuclear meltdown...

      The question is really whether the number of superheroes created by the blast of cosmic radiation would be sufficient to deal with the mutant giant arachnids. moths and reptiles created by the nuclear radiation.

      1. Ian Emery Silver badge
        Angel

        Re: EMP and nuclear meltdown...

        I suspect there would be a glut of "Glow in the Dark" men (and women); would they count as super heros??

        Very useful if I want to read a (paper) book at night.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: EMP and nuclear meltdown...

      If cooling water is interrupted, I think meltdown begins right away, and then only the thickness of the concrete determines when it breaches and blows chunks.

      Yes, which is why the Fukushima plant exploded catastrophically.

      Oh, wait.

  21. bex

    well

    It's a nearly pregnant thing then.

  22. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    Long things, and things connected to long things

    Your household goods should be fine, assuming that the pole mounted transformer near your house is all up-to-date. Our is, since the last one got hit by lightning and exploded. Our electricity went OFF during the hit, and nothing was damaged in that particular strike.

    The grid wiring will survive, but perhaps not the gear in the switching yards.

    [edited to add the beer.]

  23. Hubert Thrunge Jr.
    Joke

    It's all our fault...

    Must be caused by AGW.

    And Apple/Samsung/Beats/Bose/IBM/Snowden/etc.. (delete as appropriate).

    Why haven't there been any shock horror knee jerk reaction headlines in the Daily Mirror, or The Sun? Why hasn't the Daily Mail blamed it on immigration?

    I think this story is made up.

    Never happened. Like evolution, or S Club 7.

    On a serious note...

    If GPS was knocked out, all transmitters that use GPS as part of it's frequency locking would shut down as part of their fail-safe.

    That's modern TV and Radio transmitters

    That's Cellular Networks

    That's Public Safety Networks.

    Then we *would* be in a mess. (and back to Daily Mail/Sun/Mirror knee jerk headlines)

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We just have to get to Iapetus, reactivate the darned thing and, bing-bong boom-shakalaka, we have a Death Star. Job done.

  25. kmac499

    Primary Purpose of Government..

    The Primary Purpose of Government as espoused by surprise surprise those in government is..

    "Protection of the State." Hmm (hours of fun discussing that one.)

    Can I suggest a new mission statement in view of CME's the occasional Meteor near miss , a touch of dodgy weather courtesy of climate change and any other rare but high impact events..together with the day to day stuff.

    The duty of government is "Keep the lights on and the toilets emptied." trivial maybe but try living in a world where these two conditions don't exist..

  26. Blitheringeejit

    Would it help...

    ...to build a Faraday cage around my house?

    Or would that just get such enormous currents induced in it that I would be grilled alive from all directions?

  27. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Neil deGrasse Tyson was on Bill Maher's show on Saturday laughing so hard at this "near miss" story he damn near coughed up a lung on camera.

    He thinks these so-called "boffins" should get a f*cking grip and so do I.

  28. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    " Instead, NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) satellite was perfectly positioned to record the blast."

    And presumably is now so much silicon slag floating silently in the hellish void.

    Or are all those threats of The Flare That Ate The Intarweb perhaps a tab overblown?

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lloyds take on the risk

    http://www.lloyds.com/~/media/lloyds/reports/emerging%20risk%20reports/solar%20storm%20risk%20to%20the%20north%20american%20electric%20grid.pdf

    Compares closely.

  30. ionracer24

    Two years ago? Why am i just gettting this now? Weird, anyways, the magnetic field would keep the damage to a minimum and electronics are better prepared for such events anyways. They have back ups and surge protectors that they dint have in the 1800's and people can do without their stupid cell phones for a while....

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. Would it help

    Not really, most of the damage would be done by induced ground currents frying all the expensive hard-to-make HV transformers.

    The wiring inside your doomflare bunker might be fine but unless you have a ZPM or a radioisotope generator you would be in the dark until the grid came back, ie about two years.

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