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Y2K Today: How the Digital-Age Will Crash and Burn

A Carrington-level event is expected to occur around every 150 years. In other words, any day now.

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun
Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

While the past year has given us an unprecedented threat to our modern, hyper-social way of life with Coronavirus, there looms a far more fearsome, overdue danger above that holds hostage our Digital Age.

A “Carrington Event”, as named after the pioneering astronomer Richard Carrington, is best described in our current pandemic lexicon as a “Sun sneeze”. But instead of a spray of corona, it is a coronal ejection of energized particles – in mass amounts.

Credit: Max Pixel

One such event was seen worldwide on 1st September 1859. The night skies lit up as day in an apocalyptic light show as countries as equatorial as Cuba were witness to aurorae (Northern Lights). Even telegraph machines worked without any power source; the background energy was more than enough. All this lasted for about a week and must have been Biblical.

Credit: flickr

How does this affect You and Me?

Well, that’s just it. A Carrington-level event is expected to occur around every 150 years. In other words, any day now. Yet, in actuality this number is likely far lower; with sizable storms having occurred in 1921, 1972, 1989, 2000, 2003, and 2006.

The key difference, however, was that in 1859 there was no mainstream electrical grid and most data was recorded on paper. We, here and now, cannot say the same.

If a storm was to hit us the result, in short, would be a “Y2K” event; all power systems, including back-ups, would be disabled for at least a week, while all servers and memory banks containing every piece of digital info (like bank accounts) would likely be wiped. In figures provided by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion.

Indeed, this all sounds like something straight out of science fiction, and that is because it is. In the movie Blade Runner 2049, an identical event happened and plummeted the world into years of anarchy and uproar, with the loss of mountains of data and human history itself. The result is a silent and shattered world:

Credit: flickr

But how likely is it in our lifetime?

Curiously, one of the latest solar storms (July 2012) was a Carrington-Level Event. So menacing was it that it was given the name “Impactor”. Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado states; “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces […]. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire. NASA even posted a video of the ejection:

More worrying yet is that the very latest records of this year’s solar activity show that another near Carrington-class ejection happened this month (July), but missed the Earth.

Hopefully, the only Carrington event with a chance to hit Earth has passed for the next 150 years. But, as it goes, best to be safe than sorry; we are a spinning rock under the whim of an ambivalent burning giant; we are becoming more digitally reliant each day, and so it may be time we re-learn how to write letters, read maps, and ride horses . . .

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