Since the twenties of the last century, humanity had lived on a not very hostile planet, except for some pandemics that did not acquire the global impact of the Spanish Flu, which preceded this period of calm (1918-1920). COVID-19 has once again revealed our vulnerabilityAfter all those decades where natural disasters had been more local and the rest of the threats often came from our behavior. Thanks to this stability, in this section we have advanced a lot technologically and as a society. Without major setbacks, we have forgotten that we live on a planet that is not without its dangers. The pandemics had been cyclical, as well as the great volcanic eruptions and the now almost forgotten geomagnetic storms.. Not thinking about them may make us live happier, but that does not protect us, rather the opposite.
The last extreme geomagnetic storm dates from the year 1859, when a large solar coronal mass ejection (CME) struck Earth, melting down multitudes of telegraphs. At the time We were not dependent on electrical wiring, computers, mobiles or satellites, which would probably have been scorched in that wave of solar plasma, dubbed the Carrington event. Today much of our life depends on them, that’s why we should be more prepared than ever before the possible arrival of a similar storm.
Fortunately, Earth has a shield that protects us from much of the Sun’s spasms: the magnetosphere. This magnetic ‘bubble’ deflects a very high percentage of the solar material that rushes towards us from the star king. Without the magnetosphere, the planet would not have the rest of the layers that protect us from ultraviolet radiation, for example. Thanks to it, the world is habitable and that is why scientists strive to understand how it works. Only then will they one day be able to predict space weather and protect our technology, which is now much more complex than those early telegraphs.
The latest extreme geomagnetic storms
In this time of studies and observations we have learned that there are a number of signs prior to the arrival of a CME. In the Carrington event, a flash of white light emanating from a group of sunspots was observed for the first time. It was the English astronomer Richard Carrington who appreciated it, hence the name assigned to the phenomenon, along with his colleague Richard Hodgson, both fans. That’s not the flashiest part. The Northern Lights are the spectacular warning device for these phenomena, appearing in unusual places belonging to medium or low latitudes. At the end of August of that 1859 they were sighted in a large part of the United States, Europe and even on the island of Cuba.
Knowing this factor has allowed researchers to track previous and subsequent geomagnetic storms, thanks to the writings that point to the observation of these “fires in the sky”. In the year 1582 they came to see each other in Lisbon due to another event that is considered equally extreme thanks, precisely, to the handwritten testimonies.
There is more information on other subsequent ejections, already in the twentieth century. Not as intense as those but also with remarkable effects. On May 14, 1921, a great solar storm caused damage in Europe and especially the east coast of the United States., where New York City saw Central Station and other rail networks come to a standstill. Closer in time was the event that paralyzed Quebec, specifically on March 13, 1989, staying in the dark for almost a day. In 2000 another geomagnetic storm caused the loss of the Japanese satellite ASCA.
The 2019 blackout in Tenerife
The Tenerife blackout of a year and a half ago is perhaps the closest and most striking case probably linked to fluctuations in the magnetic field, according to Consuelo Cid, an expert with the National Space Weather Service. The entire island was without electricity on September 20 of that year, affecting almost a million people. Consuelo Cid said she had found magnetic fluctuations at the Güimar observatory just at the time of the failure, coinciding with a coronal hole in the Sun that had to do with these disturbances.
What if we now had another Carrington event?
The experts assure that an ejection like the one in the 19th century could leave incalculable losses and perhaps a long-term blackout – several years, say the most pessimistic-. NASA has been warning for a long time of the impact of such an event, capable of disrupting power, communications and GPS networks, as well as causing spectacular auroras. Errors in navigation systems would affect the normal operation of telephones, airplanes or cars. Those problems would be a trifle compared to the infinite damage to electrical transformers, which could be changed, but that would take a long time. We should have a plan to avoid the mess. The pandemic has shown us that improvising is not a good option.