In the latest Straight Dope question about potential Doomsday events in our lifetimes, Cecil dismisses many with a wave of the keyboard - "For brevity I’ll exclude events so unpredictable, remote, or unlikely there’s no use worrying about them, much less planning for them. Thus we’ll blow off … solar flares (who knows?).
Blowing off solar flares with a “who knows?” is rather poor scholarship. Who knows? Astronomers. Wikipedia. Several science television shows have addressed the phenomenon.
The Solar Storm of 1859 “was the largest recorded geomagnetic storm… Aurorae were seen around the world, most notably over the Caribbean… Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators.Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire. Some telegraph systems appeared to continue to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.”
“Ice cores contain thin nitrate-rich layers that can be used to reconstruct a history of past events before reliable observations. These show evidence that events of this magnitude—as measured by high-energy proton radiation, not geomagnetic effect—occur approximately once per 500 years, with events at least one-fifth as large occurring several times per century. Less severe storms have occurred in 1921 and 1960, when widespread radio disruption was reported.”
Similarly, a March 1989 solar storm caused the failure of Quebec’s electrical grid:
“The James Bay network went offline in less than 90 seconds, giving Quebec its second massive blackout in 11 months.The power failure lasted 9 hours and forced the company to implement various mitigation strategies, including raising the trip level, installing series compensation on ultra high voltage lines and upgrading various monitoring and operational procedures.”
Perhaps more seriously, “As this occurred during the Cold War, many worried that a nuclear first-strike might be in progress… The burst caused short-wave radio interference, including the disruption of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia. It was initially believed that the signals had been jammed by the Soviet government…Some satellites in polar orbits lost control for several hours. GOES weather satellite communications were interrupted causing weather images to be lost.”
Another event in August caused a halt in trading on the Toronto stock market.
This event was taken seriously enough that “other utilities in North America, the UK, Northern Europe and elsewhere implemented programs to reduce the risks associated with geomagnetically induced currents.” Also, since 1995, these potential for the occurrence of such events have been monitored by NASA and ESA.
Other events include the Aurora of November 17, 1882, which "was reported in the New York Times and other newspapers as having an effect on telegraph systems, which were rendered useless in some cases. The Savannah Morning News reported that “the switchboard at the Chicago Western Union office was set on fire several times, and much damage to equipment was done. From Milwaukee, the ‘volunteer electric current’ was at one time strong enough to light up an electric lamp”. Measurements taken in the United Kingdom, where the telegraph also was affected, indicated that a telluric current five times stronger than normal was present.
Needless to say, we rely far more heavily on electromagnetic equipment to conduct our lives today than in the past. Solar storms could destroy our satellites, our computers and all data stored on them, and all objects dependent on electromagnetic elements (cars, telephones, etc).
There are also hundreds of thousands of people in aircraft at all times now. These aircraft could have cataclysmic failure.
I would say that a solar flare with the potential to erase all electronic financial, medical, and scientific data, and destroy the devices that store the data, collapse electrical grids, destroy all satellites, reduce us using motor vehicles a couple of decades old, and send hundreds of airplanes crashing to the ground deserves more than a “who knows?” response.
We do know. We know that there could be thousands to millions of deaths, trillions of dollars of damage, and complete disruption of our lives, if there were a severe solar flare. We also know that large geographic areas could be severely affected by smaller flares. We also know that it could accidentally trigger military weapons launch systems, either by direct action or by human misinterpretation of the cause - What if North Korea thought that the solar-flare induced disruption in their military systems was caused by South Korea or Japan and launched some nuclear missiles at Seoul or Tokyo?
It has happened in our lifetimes. It most likely will again. A Toba or Yellowstone level eruption is much less likely. The Singularity is a hypothesis. But I wouldn’t want to be on a jet flying over the north pole on my way to Europe when a large solar flare occurs.
I also wouldn’t want my cell phone to burst into flames in my pocket.