Humankind has been forever fascinated with aurora borealis, a magical play of lights that can be observed close to the Earth’s geographical north pole. However, the poetry-inspiring dazzle of nature’s own discotheque may not be just a show of beauty through eternity, as per NASA. One day, a similar but far more impactful dazzle of lights across the northern pole may cause a global blackout of communication systems, and possibly, almost every form of electronics.
The reason for this is because of solar flares — in particular, a solar storm comprising flares of significantly higher magnitude. The origin of this warning comes via astronomer Juan Carlos Casado, whose photograph of a particularly bold session of aurora was taken over Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland. The achingly beautiful photograph, which Casado dubbed ‘beauty and the beast’, gives an insight into how this might impact the very core of mankind’s existence today — electronics and connectivity.
The beauty, as Casado noted, is the spectral brilliance of aurora, which would increase manifold in case of higher magnitude flares. The beast, however, rises from the scientific cause behind aurora. Solar flares are caused by storms on our star, the Sun’s surface. As such storms intensify, there always lies the potential of a solar blast, which releases charged ions, or flares, through the solar system. The impact can be of such immense magnitude that such a storm can potentially bring down every form of electronic infrastructure across the world, potentially leading into a billion-dollar natural massacre, and total global blackout.
The northern lights occur as a result of the friction of charged solar ions with particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is this friction that leads to specific wavelengths from the visible spectrum to get reflected, causing the dazzling display of lights. However, a significantly higher magnitude of charge flowing through the atmosphere can potentially tip over the electronic threshold of our man-made cables and networks, providing a gentle reminder and perspective of how very limited our capabilities are, even after years of innovation at breakneck speed.
The implications can be tremendous — apart from the fact that electricity forms the sole source of heat, light and other necessities across the world, almost every crucial framework, including an overwhelming majority of the world’s money, relies on connectivity to sustain. Such a flare, as a result, may cause a potentially long-lasting, trillion-dollar devastation across the world, even as the possibility of human death may be limited.
While there is no question to the fact that humankind remain woefully under-prepared for such a calamity, the question remains, would we ever really have the sort of technology that can help mankind prevent itself from self-destructing, if and when such an event occurs?