When a major solar flare and associated coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the Sun in 1859, charged particles from the star wreaked havoc on Earth. Officially known today as the Carrington Event, the major solar storm highlighted the potentially catastrophic effects our Sun can have on Earth. The solar storm brought down telegraph systems across Europe and North America, caused telegraph poles to sparkle and some offices even caught fire.
If another solar storm this big struck our technology-dependent world today, odds are civilization would be pushed to the brink.
And one such storm narrowly missed us in the summer of 2012.
On July 23 that year, a CME or cloud of plasma escaped the Sun at speeds of 3,000km per second.
The CME crossed Earth’s orbit and luckily missed our planet, but a team of investigators later concluded it was one of the most powerful solar storms in recorded history.
According to Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, the storm may have even been more powerful than the Carrington event.
He said at the time: “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”
Dr Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and pioneer of string field theory, is one of the scientists who warned us about the dangers posed by solar activity in 2012.
The physicist, who teaches at the City College of New York and is a best-selling author and TV presenter, appeared in a Big Think video to discuss “the question of catastrophic solar flares”.
He said: “That’s something that has been pooh-poohed, but we now realize it’s actually more dangerous than we previously thought.”
“If you take a look at the record, if you go back to 1859, that is the famous Carrington event.
“Carrington was an astronomer. He noticed unusual activity on the Sun, and then all hell broke loose on the planet Earth with regards to telecommunications, specifically telegraph wires.”
According to the expert, a repeat of the Carrington Event today would fry our weather satellites, GPS, telecommunications and the internet.
In a world that relies heavily on our ability to connect to people across the globe in a blink of an eye, the damage would be catastrophic.
A 2013 report, for instance, estimated the economic cost of such a storm in the US alone would reach £0.43trillion to $1.87trillion ($0.6trillion to $2.6trillion).
Dr Kaku said: “Power stations would be vulnerable. They would also be short-circuited and wiped out, not just in one city where other cities come to the rescue, but in cities simultaneously across the entire planet Earth.
“Refrigeration would be knocked out for perhaps weeks at a time. There could be food riots as a consequence.
“Ordinary, simple business transactions would be halted because you can’t make a credit card transaction because the telephone wires are out. Society as we know it would be thrown back perhaps a hundred years into the past.”
This does not mean another Carrington-level storm is going to hit us anytime soon.
But the 1859 and 2012 events should act as a good reminder that we are often at the mercy of the elements, especially the cosmic ones.
For the most part, the planet has been lucky enough to dodge most of what the Sun spews out into space.
But Dr Kaku noted: “It’s Russian roulette, but it means that our society as we know it is potentially in danger.
“We are sitting ducks to a potential giant solar flare.”