On September the 1st 1859 a British astonomer called Richard Carrington observed one of the most powerful solar storms to have occurred in the last couple of centuries. It was so big in fact that it was visible to the naked eye (under the right conditions) and produced the northern lights in the sky as far south as Puerto Rico and the Canary Islands. From calculations that Carrington made at the time he figured the flare to be moving towards earth at a staggering 420,000 miles and hour!
With recent advances in technology we are now observing the sun 24 hours a day and understand that the Sun has cycles much like anything else in a system. The most commonly understood is the sun spot cycle which which can take anywhere between 9 and 14 years and has an average length of 11 years. It denotes a periodic change in the solar magnetic activity of the sun and relates directly to the number of sun spots the sun produces.
Next year the Sun's magnetic energy cycle is going to peak as it does roughly every 22 years and this is making some senior heliophysicists a little concerned. Primarily because it will coincide with the sun spot cycle moving into a time of greater activity. The super flare in 1859 did not have much of an impact on our society due to a lack of electronic gadgetry being around but this time round it could have far reaching consequences for society as a whole. A smaller flare in 1989 caused variations in the earth's magnetic field that tripped circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec's power grid and left satellites out of control in orbit around the Earth.
NASA are now warning that this year or next Earth could see a once-in-a-lifetime ‘space storm’ capable of causing ‘20 times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina’.
Senior space agency scientists believe that the super storm would hit like ‘a bolt of lightning’ and damage everything from emergency services’ systems, , banking systems and air traffic control devices, through to “everyday” items such as home computers, iPods and Sat Navs.
"We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr Richard Fisher, the director of NASA’s Heliophysics division, said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
Most of us could go a couple of days without our phones or ipods but the scariest factor is how much of our society's support system is also controlled by electronics. Many of our sewer systems are run electronically, as are the all the systems in hospitals, transport, supermarkets the list goes on.
So if we were to be struck by another solar storm the size of the one in 1859 we could literally be catapulted back 150 years to a time before electronics and a very basic existence.
There are things that can be done to protect our systems, but this is costly and many people would prefer to think that any forthcoming flares will hopefully just miss us, which may be the case. If we're lucky.