On a recent Sunday, our sun demonstrated killer muscle.
Sunday, Jan. 13, was nothing special. The Midwest was digging out of the first major snow. The storm was heading Northeast, sure to end Indian summer on the Coast.
Workers operating power-grid stations sat at their computers. The system could handle the storm, and then some. Another quiet Sunday. Another cup of coffee. And then the alarms went off.
The news flashed from the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center. Satellites detected a rapidly expanding area of the sun, an onerous bulge in its fiery crust. But this was no sunspot, no flare, not even the sun tornadoes seen recently. It was massive.
“ALERT, Type 4 Radio Emission.”
That meant a major eruption happened, with an ejection of a cloud of nuclear-heated, radioactive particles. They call it a Chromal Mass Ejection or The Blob. And this one was aimed at earth.
There was nothing to do but call the boss. We have no defense against this.
Blobs have a geologic record on earth. Some blame them for realignment of our poles and our climates and extinction of animals. One struck northeastern Canada in 1989 and blew out the power grid for weeks, causing millions in damages and shutting down a number of critical satellites.
But now we’re in the computer age, and one can only dread. We’d lose everything wireless, everything connected. The few shielded computers would survive but be worthless without the others.
Imagine 50 million people without power in the year’s coldest month. Imagine 30,000 flights grounded. Imagine turning on your cell phone and hearing, “We’re sorry, service not available.”
Data continued to flow into Space Weather’s computers. Then Norm Cohen noticed something. The Blob was breaking up.
“A dud,” he told MSNBC. The alert was downgraded to an advisory. The story did not even make the newspapers.
The Blob did hit earth, 93 million miles and four days later. It caused some power fluctuations and some broadcast disruptions. No big deal, this time.
There’s no money to keep a warehouse of spare satellites or to sun-proof our power systems. Our power grid is a patchwork of new and old tech, fragile and exposed. We would do what Quebec did and take months to rebuild the system by hand.
As usual, we’ll worry about it when it happens. Meanwhile, our friend the sun is out there percolating away, preparing to serve us up the Next Big Thing to ruin our Sunday.