Doomsday Scenarios: Solar Flares Should Not Be Blown Off

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.

Yeah, I, too, thought solar flares were a little unfairly disregarded.

I interpreted the solar flares as falling into the “unpredictable” category, as in, they’re so unpredictable there’s no sense talking about them because we couldn’t prepare for them.

Is there a way to predict solar flares?

I guess Signorino handled the flare problem by penning a particularly hostile sun. I thought he contributed a particularly fine effort this week.

Also I’d say that while solar flares deserve a follow up column, if they can’t provide us with a body count at least in the hundreds of millions then they aren’t in the same league as the other discussed scenarios, at least for true doomsday connoisseurs.

ETA: I see that bowlweevils has relatively few posts to his name. Welcome bowlweevils and thanks for the well substantiated comment.

This website is hilarious, a collection of end of the world scenarios.

I also thought that the singularity was blown off a bit unfairly.

The singularity is not just super-optimism about lots of tech revolutions just spontaneously happening. The point about it is that once we have some ability to manufacture a general purpose intelligence – even initially a very crude one – then suddenly we’ll have the means to accelerate our own progress.

It won’t be the first thing to accelerate our progress, but it will be a game-changer.

What about a coronal ejection hitting planet Earth?

Predict them, in the sense of “we are due for one”, no we don’t have that kind of history.

But we currently do have techniques to detect them occurring, and predict the path, before they actually hit, to have some warning they are coming.

CME’s have two waves of activity. The first wave hits at the speed of light, but doesn’t do much damage. The second wave follows hours later, and is the real charge risk.

Astronomers are working on better detection methods. Also, there have been some improvements to some electrical grids because of previous hits.

The best plan currently would seem to be to beef up electrical grids and provide fuses/circuit breakers on the scale of energy density in question, detect when they occur, best rate the power of the oncoming event, and have a plan to systematically power down/ preemptively isolate the grid during the worst periods.

What about biowarfare or chemical warfare? Develop forms of bacteria and virsuses that are immune to drugs for humans or destory a range of genetic variance within living human resources, such as crops. They will kill most of your enemies swiftly and easily in one time. However as Germans learned with mustard gas in WWI, the wind can bring it to your lines and affect you also. If there is no treatment and these types of warfare spread through the populations (wind, animals or people), I think most human population will be destroy. While it may or may not destroy modern civilization, I will alot of social and political changes would come out of the war with devasting results for the survivors of the conflict.

If nuclear warfare happens at the same as bio/chemical warfare, (a no brainer) are pretty screwed with extinction.

It happens every few years, on average. As long as there’s enough advance warning, equipment can be protected in various ways. And the direct risk to humans from any sort of solar activity is basically nil.

Recommended reading on this topic is a scholarly paper:
Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards by Nick Bostrom.

Highlights include destructive nanotechnology intentionally unleashed on the earth, which he considers the most likely cause of actual human extinction, as well as the possibility that we are living in a simulation that will be shut down (it sounds absurd but there are sound philosophical arguments as to why we should take this possibility seriously). He also discusses post-human scenarios where most of what humans could find valuable is lost, although a form of intelligence may continue to thrive indefinitely.

As long as Earth has a sufficiently robust magnetic field to protect us from the charged particles.

Pole shifting takes hundreds (or thousands) of years but we are very overdue with the weakening overall field strength, accelerating pole drift and the South Atlantic Anomaly as evidence one is starting. While it’s not a reduce to zero/rebuild strength with reverse polarity process, the multiple poles created at random latitudes during a reversal will substantially weaken the overall field and cause random electromagnetic holes over the new poles.
A major CME (we’ve only been watching for a few decades, it’s unlikely we’ve ever seen a truly big one) coinciding with a dramatically weakened field or a hole over a dense population center could be very ugly (yet very pretty).

And nobody has yet mentioned Death From The Skies, by the Bad Astronomer.

I suspect that there is a way to argue that this is not direct, but the major risk to humans from solar activity is skin cancer, the most frequently diagnosed form of cancer. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans will develop some form of skin cancer in their lives.

The various hues of human skin evolved in response to solar activity, with darker skin found in equatorial regions to combat the hazards of exposure of skin to strong and long periods of direct solar radiation (specifically UV radiation).

Lighter skin is related to the hazards of not receiving enough exposure to sunlight, which acts as a vitamin D catalyst.

The high rate of skin cancer in Australia and New Zealand is a consequence of light-skinned people living in an area receiving high amounts of UV solar light, due to a hole in the ozone layer of the atmosphere over the southern coastal areas where most of the population lives.

Bolivians also get skin cancer at high rates as the high altitude of much of the country (the Altiplano) exposes them to increased solar radiation.

But that’s hardly a doomsday scenario. Just a risk of daily living.

First, the Cubs winning would not be catastrophic for the masses or even diehard Cub fans. The latter could jump ship to some Cleveland or Detroit sports team. Only hardcore Cub fans like myself, who want the Cubs to lose, would face certain calamity. The Cubs losing keeps ticket prices low, stops talk about moving the team to Addison, reduces the threat of the precinct being voted dry thereby ending beer sales, etc.

Now for the Higgs boson, aka the Dog particle (religion makes me dyslexic). Since we know the Mayans are right and the world will end Dec '12, we must examine those possibilities that are true game changers. Of these, I say only the Higgs boson qualifies. There is reason to be scared as CERN is planning bigger experiments to find this massive particle, culminating is December! Culminating in December - because they know it’s the end.

Slacks, devote conspiracy theorist (because ignorance is strength)

ps. - I’m selling End-of-the-World insurance policies if anyone is interested.