Monday, July 23, 2012

Is the sun getting ready to turn out the lights?

By John David Powell
The sun sure has been heating up things around these and other parts lately. The Lower-48 hasn’t seen this much sun in at least a generation.  Here in Texas, too much sun and too little rain teamed up in 2011 to give us the worst drought in history.
This year’s drought across the nation is withering corn and soybean crops.  Some of us already are seeing the effects on grocery prices. Funny how that happens, how we pay at check-out today for tomorrow’s higher cost of goods. Just like the way gas prices always go up when oil prices go up, and then stay there even after oil prices fall.
Mother Nature uses weather to show us that we are not on the top of her food chain. Oh, sure, we can split the atom, destroy nations with the push of a button, and sometimes fry a turkey without burning down the house, but we cannot stop the sun from shining or make rain fall with the snap of our fingers.
And speaking of the sun, radio broadcasts around the world went silent earlier this month when the sun belched out an “X-class” solar flare. That’s as big as they come. 
The sun is entering the peak of its 11-year cycle of solar flares, with next year expected to be a doozie. There is concern among the smart folks who keep an eye on the sun that a tsunami of solar flares hitting earth could do some severe damage to just about anything and everything that runs on electricity. And that includes our bodies and anything we might have implanted in them.
Scientists at NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory ( who watch these things figure a flurry of solar storms the first week of March hit the earth with enough energy to power every home in New York City for two years.
Back in 1859, a solar flare hit us with enough force to make telegraphs give off sparks. Some of them shorted out. A few fires started. All this was quite disturbing to the telegraph operators, as you can imagine, so they did what we usually do when appliances go haywire: they unplugged them. But that did not help, because those suckers kept on running from the electricity in the air.
Keep in mind that the telegraph of 1859 was the Internet of today, providing nearly instant communication from town to town and between the United States and Europe. Also, the telegraph was just about the height of man’s electronic technology. Yes, my darlings, that was long before smart phones and The Cloud. No microwaves, no electric cars, and no power grids to keep a gazillion gizmos humming throughout the day.
Telegraphs were not the first signs something was up. Folks looking up in the real clouds in the hours just before dawn saw the skies light up in red, green, and purple auroras, Northern Lights as we call them around here. And those lights lit up the night enough so that people in Cuba could read their papers as easily as if it were daylight.
That incident is known as “the Carrington Effect (”, named for English solar astronomer Richard Carrington who was the first to see a magnetic explosion on the sun.  What Carrington saw was a white-light solar flare that released a coronal mass ejection, a CME, and fired it toward the earth, hitting the planet 17 hours later. Scientists say if it happened today, it would be devastating for everything that runs on electricity: cell phones, satellites, GPS systems, computers, and medical equipment. Even planes, trains, and automobiles. They say it could knock out most, if not all, our power grids by taking out transformers. It could mean lights-out for the world’s largest cities, the financial and communication capitals of the planet.
Back in March 1989, a single solar flare ( knocked out the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada for more than nine hours, leaving six million Canadians without power, and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Another solar storm in 1994 damaged two communication satellites, disrupting newspaper, television, and radio service throughout Canada. Both of these occurred before we walked around with the world literally at our fingertips. Well, not literally, but pretty darn close to it.
And if you think groceries and gas prices are high now, think about what they will be when you cannot buy them because the cash registers and gas pumps will not work. And whatever money you have in the bank will stay there because ATMs and human tellers will not be able to access it.
It is possible the Mayans did not predict an end to the physical world when Dec. 21 rolls around, but an end to our hi-tech way of life.
But look at this way, if the lights go out, we can see the Northern Lights a whole lot better.
John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from ShadeyHill Ranch in Texas.