In 1859, the sun sent solar superflares towards Earth and disrupted telegraph systems across the Western world.
The head of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy and his colleague published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal last month estimating that if it happened today, the flares would knock out satellites, our power grids and the internet, and cause upwards of $10 trillion in damage.
“Back then [in 1859], there was not very much technology so the damage was not very significant, but if it happened in the modern world, the damage could be trillions of dollars,” said Professor Avi Loeb, Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University. “A flare like that today could shut down all the power grids, all the computers, all the cooling systems on nuclear reactors. A lot of things could go bad.”
How do we protect ourselves, as they predict it’s likely to happen again within the next century?
Professor Loeb and Manasvi Lingam, a Harvard postdoc who worked with him on the paper, proposed one incredibly expensive solution. We could build an enormous magnetic shield out of conductive wires and deflect the flares away from Earth. The problem is, they think launching a shield like that into space would cost at least $100 billion.
Do any other experts in the field have thoughts about the threat of solar superflares to our future?
“I’m not lying awake in bed at night worrying about solar superflares,” said Greg Laughlin from the Department of Astronomy at Yale University. “But that doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t be worrying about it.”