My wife and I caught the last two thirds of Knowing the other night after we got out of the Monsters and Aliens show we went to. I don’t where to even begin to describe the wretchedness of this turd of a film, but if you go and see it, you can rest assured that by the time you get to the angels/aliens rapturing the Noah’s ark children and fuzzy bunnies while the rest of humanity burns in a fiery death ball, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Oops, did I just spoil it for you? Think of it as sparing you from the agony of discovery. I tried to think of a pun involving spoilers and “Knowing” but this film is so bad, it doesn’t deserve my puns.
The reason I’m mentioning the film at all (aside from my cautionary tale) is that the sci-fi disaster premise on which the ending is based is sort of real. In the film, a gigantic coronal mass ejection from the Sun (a big hunk of plasma ripped off the Sun’s surface during a solar flare) gets flung at the Earth resulting in mankind’s destruction. In reality, the fiery destruction depicted in the film would not occur, but such an event is possible, and its effects could be devastating — but not for the reasons you might think.
It turns out that these gigantic CMEs do occur and sometimes they get flung straight at the Earth, and sometimes the Earth’s magnetic field (which normally protects us from the badness of solar plasma and radiation) is aligned in such a way that the solar wind gets into our atmosphere. It has happened as recently as 1989, though effects were localized and the flare wasn’t as big as it could have been. To understand a really bad event, you need to look at 1859.
It is known as the Carrington event, after the British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who was the first to note its cause: “two patches of intensely bright and white light” emanating from a large group of sunspots. The Carrington event comprised eight days of severe space weather.
There were eyewitness accounts of stunning auroras, even at equatorial latitudes. The world’s telegraph networks experienced severe disruptions, and Victorian magnetometers were driven off the scale.
Though a solar outburst could conceivably be more powerful, “we haven’t found an example of anything worse than a Carrington event”, says James Green, head of NASA’s planetary division and an expert on the events of 1859. “From a scientific perspective, that would be the one that we’d want to survive.” However, the prognosis from the NAS analysis is that, thanks to our technological prowess, many of us may not.
It turns out that all that plasma wreaks havoc with our electrical grid, and the more sophisticated the grid, the more vulnerable it is to solar flares. A Carrington-scale event today could wipe out modern electrical infrastructure and render modern wired nations without an electrical network. The concomitant effects on financial systems, food delivery, emergency response — pretty much all of the important systems that define our “advanced” society — would be catostrophic. Moreover, it could take years to get the power back on. We wouldn’t all die in a sweeping wall of fire engulfing the Earth — we’d die fighting each other for scraps of food.
This New Scientist article is a fascinating and disturbing read.
Time to restock that Y2K pantry?