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Hindsight on solar emissions and modern technology

Fourteen chapters ago, I noted how the impressive aurora displays near the poles of the earth have moved from being beautiful entertainment to a potential threat to modern electronic systems. The normal displays are from energetic particles randomly heading out from the sun that are trapped in the atmosphere by the earth’s magnetic field. The lights occur over a broad swathe of the atmosphere and represent many hundreds of megawatts of power. The danger for us is that the particles emitted from sunspots are directional, and at far greater intensity than the general background emission. The sun is some 93 million miles away from us; the difference between the random background and a directional beam of particles is some 50,000 times. Further, the sunspot flares can be 10,000 times greater than the normal surface emission. If the energy pulse happens to be directed towards the earth, then the beam from the sunspot may deliver many million times more energy into an aurora electromagnetic storm. This will endanger electronic communications and the electrical power grid networks, together with all associated services we expect in advanced nations. A recognizable analogy is to contrast the light intensity from an old-fashioned light bulb with a highly directional pulsed laser. The former is useful, but the pulse laser will be literally blindingly bright, and do irreversible damage.

Typically, the high-risk countries are at the higher latitudes, and especially in the more polar regions, but truly major aurora activity has been seen as far south as Cuba. Thus even a more limited event extending as far south as the Mediterranean would encompass all of Europe, Canada and the northern USA, Japan, northern China, etc. They would be at the front line of a solar flare sunspot catastrophe. Additionally, sustained power loss to major conurbations will be equally disruptive. Dead satellites imply a very long-term global consequence.

Restoring local facilities would be difficult. A US study of a modest scenario predicted the power grid situation would be out of action for at least a month, but the failure might extend to several years. Personally, I feel the report contained political whitewash, possibly to minimize public concern or panic, as it underplays the scale of the catastrophe. Power and communications loss for even a month could produce a high death toll (measured in millions) and total social disorder, especially if the event were during the winter. Because in the model only the northern states of the USA are assumed to be affected, the erroneous assumption is that the rest of the country could instantly provide food, power, and services.

Foresight for solar flare events is essential as they are certain to happen, and statistically we can expect a truly large one within the relatively near future. Design and investment now may not totally solve the problem, but it should avoid collapse of the regions involved. Additionally, protective measures might minimize terrorist attacks that attempt to trigger similar outcomes.

The second aspect of solar emission events is that electronic systems for communications are far less robust than the high-grade, high- power engineering of the power networks. So destruction of local communication nets is highly likely. Our communications involve satellites and, even if they are temporarily deactivated during a high-power directional coronal emission, their electronic circuitry may be destroyed, or we may not be able to reactivate them. This weakness for us is due entirely to technological progress. So for this eventuality, our forward planning requires alternative communication systems independent of satellites. Their operating performance is excellent, but equally we have put all our eggs in one basket.

Other plans should include ways to override normal optical fibre Internet activity, and block all noncritical usage. Not least as at a time of such a crisis, people will be frantically trying to communicate. Technically, Internet control is feasible, but the design needs to be ready for immediate action. Unfortunately, because this possibility exists, one suspects that many nations and terrorist groups are already experimenting to see if they can take control of Internet traffic in order to disrupt it for political or commercial reasons.

Satellites are so successful that many more are being launched, and this will raise a difficulty a few decades from now. They have a finite life, and once destroyed can break up into many high energy fragments, that in turn destroy other satellites. It is a predictable problem and there may be time and incentive to find a solution. There are already tens of thousands of energetic fragments, so we expect a runaway effect over the course of perhaps a decade. Satellite loss might then be irreversible; satellites will no longer be available as a technology for future generations. Foresight partly exists as operating satellites and the International Space Station are frequently repositioned to avoid collisions.

However, what is needed are ways of removing fragments from the satellite belt. If not, then satellite communication will become ineffective or impossible for later generations. This is a technological challenge that needs imagination. I feel the solution to this problem is far more worthy of fame and a Nobel Prize than many of the more esoteric studies that are currently recognized. This may seem to be a controversial view, but without a solution there will be no way to make progress elsewhere. Therefore, within the science community, as well as industry, the scientific status of the problem should be raised.

The more complex subtext of any discussion in which technology drives disasters that cause the collapse of advanced countries (and very large conurbations) is that there will be less impact on the rest of the world. Therefore, from some perspectives it may even seem desirable. I personally find this extremely worrying, as from various political or religious viewpoints, the collapse of the advanced societies might be welcomed, and it could be triggered by conscious acts using only modest, and existing, technological skills. Current examples of new types of terrorism unfortunately strengthen my argument. Blockage of communication has terrorist potential, and there have already been recent examples of attempts to overload specific Internet sites. The activities were short-lived events, but I suspect they were merely on a scale of training exercises.

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