back to article Hate your IT job? Sick of computers? Good news: An electronics-frying Sun superflare may hit 'in next 100 years'

Our Sun may be middle-aged but it still has the energy to expel superflares, a rare rush of energy, every few thousands of years that could destroy Earth’s spacecraft and electronics, scientists warned. Stars are unpredictable. They occasionally and randomly let out belches of plasma, particles, and radiation, in the form of …

  1. DougS Silver badge
    Devil

    Carrington Event

    Perhaps that was a superflare, so we're good for another couple thousand years or so right?

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Carrington Event

      Or maybe the next superflare will not be aimed at Earth ?

      There is, after all, a zone of, like, 359° around the Sun where we are not.

      1. Cuddles Silver badge

        Re: Carrington Event

        "There is, after all, a zone of, like, 359° around the Sun where we are not."

        On the one hand, it's probably somewhat less than 359 since a flare can easily cover more than 1 degree. But on the other hand, the Sun is a sphere (in a vacuum no less, possibly it's really a cow) so you need to think about solid angle - if a flare isn't ejected in the ecliptic plane, it's not going to hit us even if it's dead on target when projected onto a 2D view. Flares tend to occur more in the vicinity of the equator, but not exclusively so.

    2. Richard Tobin

      Re: Carrington Event

      The superflares described in the paper are about 100 times more energetic than estimates for the Carrington event.

      1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

        Re: Carrington Event

        "But on the other hand, the Sun is a sphere (in a vacuum no less, possibly it's really a cow)"

        Sun, are you... are you my mummy?

  2. Noonoot

    Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

    Bring it on - we don't need cell phones, computers, the internet or anything. Good ol' hand written letters, talking over the fence to your neighbour rather than whatsapping and going round to your friend's to show them that cake you baked.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

      Imagine the younger generation who won't even be able to answer the door.

    2. BrownishMonstr

      Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

      Couldn't this affect nuclear power plants, or weapons, and other things which need to be constantly monitored, or do these have good fail-safes and we can expect those responsible not to take any shortcuts?

      1. Tom Paine Silver badge

        Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

        Yes.

    3. DuncanLarge Silver badge

      Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

      " going round to your friend's to show them that cake you baked"

      How are you going to bake that cake?

      If you have an electric oven, how are you going to power it?

      If you have a gas oven, how is the gas getting pumped to you?

      You need to build a new wood burning stove before baking the cake. How do you do that? How to you run the machines to mine and process the metal? How do you make a stove in an age that no longer uses steam?

      So build steam engines. From scratch we re-invent the industrial revolution. Horses and their power become premium items as there are not enough to go around for a few years at least. Owners of the really big horses become instantly rich in a barely functioning economy demanding they breed their huge powerful horses to try and increase availability.

      Yeah we could carry on like our great grandfathers before us assuming we survive the complete turmoil following the destruction of our electricity grid.

      What we need are spare parts for wind turbines and solar panels etc. Parts that are not assembled, not capable of having a powerful enough electric field induced.

      1. adam 40 Bronze badge

        Valves

        I already have some valve electronics, starting with an old valve oscilloscope, so I can fix things. Valve stuff is pretty immune to the big surges you're worried about.

        I've got a petrol generator, and the house already has a backup wood/multi fuel burning stove (which comes in handy already if the central heating packs up).

        Also what with the Brexit prepping supply, looks like I have most bases covered.

        Just need to find the Victorian well in the garden.... it's there somewhere....

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: Valves

          You'll be the prime target in your area for the roving bands of thieves and thugs armed with many, many guns. I've seen all those US-based post-apocalyptic documentaries.

          1. FozzyBear Silver badge

            Re: Valves

            As opposed to the roving bands of thieves and thugs armed with many , many guns in US Cities today

          2. mrobaer

            Re: Valves

            " I've seen all those US-based post-apocalyptic documentaries."

            You've been watching the Detroit nightly news, have you?

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Valves

          Diesel engines can be started up by air compressors. And they don't rely on spark plugs to achieve detonation, as usual.

          You just need a reserve of compressed air, filled with enough of it for the next start-up.

          Nuclear power plants use THOSE to start their emergency generators, just in case. They will START, an huge flare may prevent them from WORKING as generators, but the cooling water pumps MECHANICALLY attached to them will work.

          Diesel is as steampunk and flare-proof as it is.

          Petrol as in 'gasoline' needs spark plugs. When you say 'petrol', I think of all 'petroleum' byproducts, including gasoline, kerosene, and thick oils burned in ship's boilers, including diesel.

          Speed governors using mechanical means (inertial rotation) would have to be reinstalled as a result.

          Ships, by the way, would be fine, if they offer a direct mechanical transmission from their steam turbines to their propeller shafts (which most don't these days).

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Valves

          Umm, with the entire power grid going down, you can have all the valves you want, not going to be much help without a functional power system. One nice thing about once in 2000 year events is that they have only a 1/2000 shot of happening this year. But then again, there is always wondering if next year's roll of the solar dice might turn up 1/1

      2. Aladdin Sane Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: From scratch we re-invent the industrial revolution

        With just a handful of men, we can start all over again...

        1. Claverhouse Silver badge

          Re: From scratch we re-invent the industrial revolution

          And maybe a couple of girls.

          Essex girls preferably. Right little goers.

          1. Rich 11 Silver badge

            Re: From scratch we re-invent the industrial revolution

            David Essex girls?

      3. Noonoot

        Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

        "How are you going to bake that cake?

        If you have an electric oven,"

        Erm, let's have a BBQ instead?

      4. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

        You need to build a new wood burning stove before baking the cake. How do you do that?

        Quite easily. Haven't you already thought to look that up before Apocalypse Day? No? Then if you want cake post-Apocalypse you can come round to my house and buy cake from me. Prices start at a kilo of salt or 50g of unexpired tetracycline.

      5. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

        Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

        My phone has a copy of Wikipedia and a whole lot of Open Street Map regions. All that will quit working is the "you're here" dot on the map, new e-mail, new text messages, and incoming robocalls.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

          ...assuming you know it's coming and have turned it off and removed the battery, then it *may* survive. IF you can remove the battery. Next you need to acquire some form of generator to charge it or hope your solar panels survived.

          1. Ugotta B. Kiddingme Silver badge

            Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

            in theory, you wouldn't have to remove the battery IF...

            1. the phone is bubble-wrapped* and the bubble wrap is encased in tin or aluminium foil AND

            2. the foil-wrapped phone is placed in foam/towel/etc* which is placed inside a closed metal ammunition box AND

            3. the metal ammunition box is placed on a wooden shelf inside a steel safe which is then closed.

            Any one of those three things is insufficient. Two of them MIGHT be enough. All three probably would. Of course, you would also need a hand-cranked or bicycle-powered generator (similarly protected) to charge the phone once you unwrapped it, but still.

            * to insulate the item from the shielding. If they touch, the shielding is useless.

      6. Pirate Dave Silver badge
        Pirate

        Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

        "You need to build a new wood burning stove before baking the cake. How do you do that? How to you run the machines to mine and process the metal? How do you make a stove in an age that no longer uses steam?"

        Eh, didn't our earlier space aliens overlords originally teach us to make our stoves out of dried, and possibly baked, mud? Mud which was often, if memory serves, in the shape of bricks.

        Just saying, a wood burning stove could be made out of bricks, which are immune to solar flares, and will be in plentiful supply once the post-apocalyptic loonies start dismantling civilization.

        1. Chris 15
          WTF?

          Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

          I knew someone would find a way to bring in Brexit here. Post apocalyptic loonies though, nice description of the Brexit Party ;)

      7. jelabarre59 Silver badge

        Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

        " going round to your friend's to show them that cake you baked"

        How are you going to bake that cake?

        It's called a Dutch Oven. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtE065II9u8

    4. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: Yeah let's frrrryyyyyyy

      But how will the grown spawn in far New Zealand WhatsApp me for advice on home diy or moan to me about her job (bioinformatics to keep this relevant) by mere letter? and what about ship or plane electronics? they might get borked as well meaning nothing flies or sails until long forgotten skills like using a sextant are retaught to mariners at least.

      After all sailing ships needn't worry about solar flares and even dreadnoughts needn't. But as ships got increasingly electrified and electronics fitted, including relying on GPS and online maps and charts they too could well be very affected. GPS won't be any use if both the satellites and the tech are fried.

      Also there are not enough spare transformers in the world to replace enough of them and countries will jealously guard the ones they have so trade in them will cease. You don't make transformers? tough, it's the steam age again for you, get building boilers dude, break out the waterwheels. Wars have been fought for less and suddenly the high tech militaries are on equal footing with the AK47 toting militias. It could get very messy very quickly.

      Also how does your local supermarket order fresh supplies these days without tech? Remember we are three days of no shops away from societal breakdown. Remember the fuel strike?

  3. Any other name

    10^36 erg per second

    Sir,

    I would like to express my deep disappointment and the sense of moral outrage at the failure of this esteemed publication to adhere to the proper, commentard-approved system of units. An anybody remotely qualified to report on any matter of science knows, the Reg-approved unit of energy is Jub-(sheep-in-vacuum)-squared, which must be used in preference to the obscure "erg", which is virtualy unknown outside of the narrow and cloistered bunch of people calling themselves "physicists". Likewise, the Reg-approved unit of power is not "erg per second", it is the much more comprehesible, understandable, and friendly Norris-(vaccum sheep). You would do all your readers a sterling service by remonstrating with the more recalcintrant of your scribes to exclusively use these approved units.

    Sincerely yours,

    A Disappointed but Loyal Reader.

    P.S. As a matter of mere curiosity, neither unit used in the article is a part of that new-fangled frenchie "international system of units" either, which would rather have us rely on "Joules" for the energy and "Watts" for power. Nowever, never shall we stoop so low as to abandon our Norris-Sheeps. Never!

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: sm-erg

      I dunno, erg is pretty funny sounding ;-)

      C.

      1. Paul A. Clayton

        Re: sm-erg

        Yes, it is the sound of a dyin' centem-eater (dyne-centimeter). (Sadly, this is not my pun. I saw it on a poster.)

      2. Claverhouse Silver badge

        Re: sm-erg

        Damn funny set of blighters too; that fellow Rees-Mogg, not quite the full shilling, what ?

        1. Rich 11 Silver badge

          Re: sm-erg

          Like one of his fellow-travellers, Mark Froggie-Name, he's seven shillings short of a guinea.

      3. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: sm-erg

        I dunno, erg is pretty funny sounding ;-)

        I think it's an entirely appropriate response after converting X*10^<lots> ergs into joules, and that that energy is rapidly heading your way. Which is one of those fascinating parts of the Carrington Event, and fun with wiki. That says-

        It is believed that the relatively high speed of this CME (typical CMEs take several days to arrive at Earth) was made possible by a prior CME, perhaps the cause of the large aurora event on August 29 that "cleared the way" of ambient solar wind plasma for the Carrington event

        Which prompted me to buy a book called 'Plasma Physics for Astrophysicists' to try and make sense of solar space sweepers 'clearing the way'. In which I learned that space may be a vacuum, but it still throws around collosal amounts of energy, and again 'erg!' is a quite appropriate response.

    2. Korev Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: 10^36 erg per second

      I know Joules, he can't be trusted at all...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 10^36 erg per second

        I thought Joules had moved to the Netherlands?

      2. DJV Silver badge

        I know Joules, he can't be trusted at all...

        His piano playing on that late night show isn't bad, though...

    3. yoganmahew

      Re: 10^36 erg per second

      The neutrinos are angry.

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: 10^36 erg per second

        The neutrinos are angry one moment, semi-angry the next and not at all angry the moment after that. Then they start all over again.

  4. Blockchain commentard Silver badge

    Don't these boffins know that the Sun goes through an 11 year cycle of going to sleep, then waking up and belching out big CME's. That's why going to see the Northern Lights can be good for a few years and then rubbish ('Oh, you should have been here 2 years ago' etc.)

    1. hplasm Silver badge
      Happy

      @ Blockchain Commentard.

      Not sure about that, but I loved you in Sherlock...

  5. chivo243 Silver badge

    Hate is a strong word

    But I will say I'm losing the mojo, and still have 10 years left...

  6. Korev Silver badge
    Joke

    Wait...

    Didn't flares go out of fashion years ago?

    1. ntevanza

      Re: Wait...

      Future flares will presumably be ironic. That doesn't make them right, though.

    2. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Re: Wait...

      Nah, we just call them bootcut now.

    3. Magani
      Coat

      Re: Wait...

      Didn't flares go out of fashion years ago?

      Aren't flares those colourful plants that Kiwis grow in the gardens?

      1. Clunking Fist Bronze badge

        Re: Wait...

        Un knizilind?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years

    there is "some possibility" that Donald Trump is an alien lizard and Hitler lives in alternative universe too, what's the news here? You bait, I bite...

    1. Anonymous Crowbar

      Re: there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years

      Actually, according to the acclaimed documentary "Iron Sky 2", Hitler actually lives in the center of the Earth and rides around on the back of a T-Rex.

  8. Steve K Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Not wanting to boast...

    Not wanting to boast but I too may be middle-aged, but still have the energy to expel superflares

    Sometimes waking up others in the vicinity....

    1. Christoph Silver badge

      Re: Not wanting to boast...

      That's now been renamed "Freedom Gas".

    2. Mephistro Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Not wanting to boast...

      Not wanting to boast either, but I once caused my then 10 years old nephew to cry with one of these "flares", at five paces. In his defense, I'll say that for a second or two, I thought that I had lost my buttocks!

  9. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Meh

    Should I worry?

    As a person of some {cough}maturity{cough} how likely is this in the next, say, 30 years?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm not worried, we last had superflares in the seventies so it'll be a good 900 years before they come back.

  11. Aladdin Sane Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Anybody else bored of waiting for the world to end?

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Mushroom

      Yes....

      Time to start dialing random computers on the internet and challenging them to a game of Thermo-nuclear war

    2. Just Enough
      Go

      You don't have to wait. You go on ahead if you're impatient.

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        If I go, I'm bringing you all with me. It's important to share big events with friends and family.

        1. Old Used Programmer

          We'll all go togheter when we go...

          Tom Lehrer fan?

  12. devTrail

    Didn't already happen?

    I remember reading somewhere about a flare recorded in the late 19th century, the telegraph lines were damaged and northern lights were visible at high latitudes. It was a little bit more than 100 years ago, according to the frequencies estimated by the scientists and mentioned in the article an event in the next 100 years seems unlikely.

    1. Mephistro Silver badge

      Re: Didn't already happen?

      That was the "Carrington event", and AFAIK, it was considered just a "flare"/CME , without the "super" part.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Didn't already happen?

      I daresay that this 100 years and/or "coming soon to a planet near you" is basically scare tactics using statistics. Just because it's "one every 1,000 years or so" doesn't mean the time can be pinpointed. Could be next week or even the next millennia.

      I suggest that rather than worrying about it, we just have an adult beverage. If it happens, it happens.

      1. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: Didn't already happen?

        But I need to know when to get my hoard of buried weapons out and clean them and get them in working order so I can go all mad max.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No need to worry...

    The massive induced currents generated when the magnetic poles flip will have prepared us well in advance of the superflare.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: No need to worry...

      Have you been reading Jim Al-Khalili's latest book?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: No need to worry...

        Nope.

  14. Milton Silver badge

    Risk assessment

    My (layman's) understanding was that we should probably worry most about coronal mass ejections (CMEs) "aimed" at Earth, which may occur with a frequency of a century or greater. CMEs are relatively common and sheer chance means that once in a while they come at our planet. Now that we're in not just the Age of Electricity but also the Internet Age, we are, as the article says, a lot more vulnerable to disruption than ever before.

    Isn't it also true that no industrialised, electrified country keeps more than a small contingency stock of spare transformers for their power grid? That building new ones actually takes quite a bit of time and resources? That a typical CME might very well destroy a sizeable proportion of existing transformers? And that, therefore, the long-term effects of a CME could be brown-outs, powercuts, possibly lengthy regional outages, for months?

    I do wonder whether anyone has run the numbers on (a) probability of a damaging CME whacking Earth, (b) likely damage scenarios, and (c) probable repair and recovery time. It would be kind of ironic that, while we've been fretting about everything from climate change to Brexit, from Huawei to the Orange Imbecile, from Ebola to comet impact, instead a predictable disaster, that we could have prepared for, brings civilisation to its knees.

    Then again, in my contrary and cynical way, I also wonder whether being knocked back to a 1930s-50s technology level for a few months might not give the foolish, childish, irresponsible human race the damn good shaking that it seems to need. Because we are currently letting ourselves be dominated by our worst, weakest and most spoiled impulses. The auguries are not good.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Risk assessment

      The auguries are indeed not good. If a CME buggers up the Earth's magnetic field for a few hours then pigeons could travel east to west just when you needed them to reliably travel west to east.

    2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Risk assessment

      I do wonder whether anyone has run the numbers on (a) probability of a damaging CME whacking Earth, (b) likely damage scenarios, and (c) probable repair and recovery time. It would be kind of ironic that, while we've been fretting about everything from climate change to Brexit, from Huawei to the Orange Imbecile, from Ebola to comet impact, instead a predictable disaster, that we could have prepared for, brings civilisation to its knees.

      Fairly frequently, especially as it's long known to have an impact on satellite operations, radio communications, power transmission etc etc. Hence interest in space weather, so operators can try to mitigate. But like most weather predictions, long-range forecasting is still an inexact science. Which can be fun when an active Sun may generate a few CME's & flares per day..

      Damage scenarios can then be based on historical observations and possible worse-case scenarios, ie a repeat of a Carrington event. Which then feeds into repair times.. Which ironically would suck if we're all in Teslas when one happened. But then so would ICE vehicles given the amount of wiring and sensitive electronics inside most non-military vehicles. Then there's potential damage to power transmission grids, where big ticket items like large transformers don't have large inventories.. Or manufacturing capacity, especially if manufacturing facilities have been zapped.

      And as for climate change, that's a fun subject. So you could potentially protect the grid by isolating bits of it to reduce induction buildups. But in our full-retard mode, we're building more fragmented and fragile grids to support 'renewables', which leads to fun consequences, like the ability to get power going again if you need to do a 'black start' from shutdown.. Along with other potential consquences, like the effect on large subsidy.. I mean solar arrays.

      And more controversially, there's the general implications of solar-driven climate change. Especially things like Svensmark's theory about cosmic ray (and SEP) influences on climate. As that defies CO2 dogma, that's controversial. But fear not! The UK's just decided to go zero carbon by 2050. And will be getting the best, expert advice

      "Mrs May has taken the unusual step of announcing that a group of young people will advise the government on priorities for environmental action. They will start their review in July.

      So the UK is fsck'd regardless..

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Risk assessment

        > theory about cosmic ray (and SEP) influences on climate

        Donald Trump would agree that climate change is SEP (in the Douglas Adams sense)

  15. TXITMAN

    100 Year flood

    It floods in Houston a lot more than once every hundred years but they keep calling them 100 and 500 year floods. Just thinking out loud. Also just retired as IT director so for a small fortune I am willing to come out of retirement to start the rebuild.

  16. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    As it happens

    I went "mining" in the shed of doom and found my box of old valve equipment

    Specifically that Heathkit grid dip oscillator circa the late 1960s.

    Wonder if its possible to make a radio transmitter using old vacuum fluorescent

    displays? I'd expect it to work at least as an amplifier, depending on geometry and

    distance between the various grids etc.

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