On the morning of September 1, 1859, as amateur astronomer Richard Carrington sketched an unusual cluster of sunspots, our star erupted in a fierce flash. An unfathomable amount of energy stored in the Sun’s magnetic field was released, propelling incredible amounts of energy on a collision course with Earth. Carrington had witnessed a solar flare, and the subsequent coronal mass ejection that would hit Earth 17 hours later resulted in a geomagnetic storm of such strength that it would become worldwide news.
Now, in a world increasingly reliant on technology, the consequences of a similar solar storm hitting would be far more damaging, according Professor Abraham Loeb, chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department.
A Carrington-type event would cost roughly $2-3 trillion
Professor Abraham Loeb
Professor Loeb told Express.co.uk: “A Carrington-type event would cost roughly $2-3trillion [£1.5- 2.3trillion] told, in terms of infrastructure damage.
“This includes damage to global supply chains, communication satellites, electric power grids and so forth.
“And of course we rely on technology more and more as time goes on, so the economic damage would be even greater in the future.”
The Sun has a 11 to 12 year cycle, oscillating from solar minimum to solar maximum.
And we are starting to head towards the maximum, which will be reached in approximately five and a half years.
The frequency of prominences – flares that we see on the Sun’s surface – increase as we reach solar maximum.
These are very violent events where magnetic field lines cross each other, releasing huge amounts of energy.
And the Sun occasionally releases a blob of hot plasma which can occasionally hit the Earth.
The last time time this occurred, in 2014, a big eruption missed the Earth by only nine days.
Professor Loeb has studied the repercussions and ways of mitigating another Carrington Event.
He told Express.co.uk: “Our paper from two years ago took statistics obtained from NASA’s Kepler satellite on 100,000 other stars similar to the Sun.
“If the equivalent of a Carrington took place today, it would cause major damage to infrastructure that didn’t exist in 1859.
“It is very likely there’ll be another Carrington-like event in the next century, as the previous one was 150 years ago.
“The damage would be even bigger today because there would be even more infrastructure.
This is why governments should think about how to protect infrastructure against these events.
“On the time scale of a century, it will definitely take place.”
Professor Loeb believes the most innovative mitigation would be to deflect this blob of energetic particles away from the Earth.
He said: “We would create a current loop that would produce a magnetic field by deflecting charged particles.
“And it would be situated at the lagrange point, because there is no gravitational acceleration at this location.
“This would be a major engineering project but we worked-out the numbers and the cost seems to be worth it, if you compare it to the cost of damage.
“The cost for the magnetic deflector project is £100billion [£79.4billion], given that the cost of taking 1kg into space costs about $1,000 [£795].
“But I think it will take first Carrington-like event of the modern era of technology before politicians act.”
Professor Loeb, last year made headlines around the world with his theory the Oumuamua extrasolar asteroid could be an alien ship.
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