Monday, July 23

A Bit of a Scare

Last Friday night I had a bit of a scare. Our power went out very suddenly. That's not unusual in Natchitoches. But, when I went outside as I usually do just to see if it's just my house, our street, etc., there didn't seem to be any of the normal sky-glow from the heart of town just a mile or so away. Not terribly unexpected. Then I noticed an odd phenomenon. I was seeing random flashes all around me, but I was hearing no thunder and seeing no lightning bolts. Nor did the sky seem cloudy, at least directly overhead, the only clear view of the sky since our area is called “Pecan Park,” being an old pecan orchard with a good number of trees that survive to this day. Indeed, I could see a fair number of stars. And the random flashes continued. At 9 pm, it being still almost 90 F, I thought of heat lightning, but again, I was seeing no bolts – in any direction. Living in Louisiana, having weathered a couple of good-sized hurricanes in Baton Rouge during the '90s – most notably Andrew – I've seen transformers blow. And that's what I immediately thought of.

My son had, a few minutes before, headed out to take his girlfriend to where she leaves her car when she comes into town. (She lives about half an hour away, and usually she drives about half way and he picks her up at a conveniently located parking lot.) After several failed attempts, I finally reached him and found that she had talked to her mother and found out that their little town was without power as well – which meant that the effects were considerably wider than just Natchitoches. My home's wifi depending on power to work, I had no luck accessing the cellular data network to see how much wider the effects might be. So I started trying to call my brother, who lives in Alabama. Several failed calls passed before I managed to briefly talk to him – not even long enough to ask the obvious question. So I started attempting text messaging, which will often work when calls will not (I have no idea why). It was quite some time before he responded and my mind was somewhat put at ease to find out that everything was all right there – although I still had no idea how widespread the outage here really was.

In the end, it all obviously came to nothing. Our power came back up after about an hour. Once Internet access was reestablished, it was easy to determine that there were indeed scattered storms in the area, and likely the outage was related to those in some manner. Or, possibly, it was indeed heat lightning. Whatever the cause, it was indeed a local outage. But the experience was one to make me think. It was very surreal. For about an hour I had no real contact with the outside world. No Internet. No information, which in this day and age I am used to having at my fingertips 24/7. As I was talking to my brother about it later, I suggested he look up the term, “Carrington Event.” Because that's where my mind had gone.

There is a danger in being a bit of an overeducated geek who has a lifelong fascination with space and science. For several years I've been aware of an approaching danger that actually comes around roughly every eleven years or so. Most people think of sunspot activity, which waxes and wanes in an eleven-year cycle, as a bit of an inconvenience that will occasionally interfere with cell phone service. The potential consequences are far more harrowing than that. We are currently in a period of increasing sunspot activity and solar flares that will max out next year, 2013. In fact, just the day previous to our strange power outage, on Thursday, the sun had spat out another massive solar flare, just the latest of many in the past few months. The 1859 Carrington Event resulted from the largest solar flare ever recorded. Besides giving rise to aurorae visible as far south as the Caribbean, it caused widespread telegraph failures and even fires as the electromagnetic surge induced currents of such magnitude that the existing lines could not handle them. Were such an event to occur today, the effects would be far worse, as described in this article on the National Geographic website: “What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today?” Imagine what happened a few weeks ago in parts of the northeastern United States, including Washington DC, as a result of what's called the “2012 North American Derecho” – several days without power – extended to weeks, months, or even years in the worst-case scenario.

What would such an event look like as it was happening? I don't know. But in my imagination last Friday night, I wondered if what I was seeing was indeed cascading transformer failures. Obviously not. But at the time, it gave me pause. Catastrophic solar flare induced power outage a danger from which we have little protection, and virtually no preparation has been made. Which is foolish, because solar-flare induced power outage not only has happened before (the 1989 Quebec Blackout) but will surely happen again. It's only a matter of time. And the current solar cycle reaches its most active next year.

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