Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Storm in a teacup

The recent solar storm was a classic example of the way the impact of scientific information on our everyday lives can be misrepresented with the best of intentions (in this case to get a story noticed) but can result in more harm than good.

I happened to be appearing on our local BBC radio station on Saturday with the excellent Mark O'Donnell and inevitably the solar storm was a big talking point. There was much fun had with audience suggesting things that could be blamed on the storm (e.g. The crisps were all crushed in someone's packet, Swindon Town losing to Oxford) and that's not surprising as some of the coverage suggested we could expect the end of life as we know it, where in practice no one noticed anything.

The problem is that the media is terrified of using probabilities, so tends not to paint a good picture of an event which we can only predict the impact of in statistical terms. Instead we got dire warnings of the worst possible outcome, which given the reality made the reports look like scientists were crying wolf.

Although this one was a false alarm we do have to face up to the distinct possibility that at some point we will get a repeat of the great solar storm of 1859. This caused sparks to fly from telegraph poles, gave telegraph operators electric shocks and set recording paper on fire. The aurora boreal is visible throughout the UK and as far south as Rome.

There's no doubt such a zapping would damage some of our ground-based electronics, but the biggest impact would be on satellites which could be uniformly and permanently knocked out because they have less protection from the Earth's magnetic field.

Just think - no GPS, devastated weather forecasting, loss of satellite communications for TV, telephone and Internet. We wouldn't lose all our electronic world, but it would be severely restricted for at least a decade before satellite capability could be restored.

Oh and no Sky TV. Not all bad, then. (Sorry, Sky, you'd be missed really, I'm sure. I just couldn't resist the tradition of Murdoch bashing.)

Image from Wikipedia

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