August 16

Over the last couple of months I’ve seen a flurry of doom ‘n’ gloom scenarios based on the nearing peak (in mid 2013) of the 11-year solar cycle.  For instance, a little over a week ago I read in the International Business Times, “Severe Solar Storm to Create Global Chaos and Complete Darkness” followed a week later by “Severe Solar Storms Could Disrupt Earth This Decade.”

I’m not picking on the IB Times.  I’ve seen similar reports in Popular Science, such as the June 30th article entitled, “Are We Prepared for a Catastrophic Solar Storm?”

So are we all toast?

Here’s the reality:

It’s true that with the near total dependence on computers for every aspect of our lives, we’ve never been more vulnerable to solar activity.  I described in a previous article a recent near-miss of a CME (corona mass ejection) — essentially a ball of plasma ejected by the sun.  If a large CME hits our planet, power could certainly go down for an extended period of time.

One of the biggest concerns of scientists is the “Fukushima Effect” in which the backup generators and battery systems at nuclear power plants run out power.  Such a circumstance could cascade to the point where water-cooling systems would become inoperable — and result in Fukushima-like catastrophes around the world.  The actual chances?  Hard to predict precisely.  But, by legitimate estimates, pretty low.

More likely to occur:  Gas pumps at your local service station would stop working.  (They’re essentially computerized pumps; the credit-card processing network would also likely go down.)   “Telecommuting” would not be possible, as phone and Internet would be flicked off like a switch.  Cell phone service would also go down as soon as the backup generators and / or batteries at the cell towers run out of juice.  (You won’t be able to charge your cell phones, anyway.)

If the power grid goes down, once your food runs out (or spoils) in your fridge, don’t count on restocking at the supermarket.  The 18 wheelers that are the mainstay of food delivery across the country would also quickly run out of fuel — and, as mentioned above, the services stations would be unable to refill the rigs.

The probability of a sweeping, worldwide catastrophe as outline above is low.  But CMEs can, and have, made direct Earth strikes over the centuries — and caused significant disruptions.  Do a Google search for the “Carrington Event.”  In 1859, during the peak of another solar cycle, a CME knocked out telegraph offices around the globe (and even shocked some of the telegraph operators).  Most scientists agree that — because of entrenched computerization and satellite-based communications — the same magnitude CME today would disrupt society on a widespread basis.

I’m hoping the media doesn’t escalate the risks to an astronomical level.  The last thing we need is a massive wave of hysteria.  But, hey, it can’t hurt to keep an extra candle or two around the house.  And, perhaps, a couple of cans of Spam…

For a reasonably well-proportioned (non-hyped) news report — with an exceptional piece of video from NASA of a CME — check out the following two-minute CNN video:

For reference, the NASA image associated with this article shows the approximate size of the Earth as compared to a solar eruption.  (In reality, the Earth is 93 million miles away from the sun — so a flare would never envelop the Earth as in the NASA comparison.)