Carrington Events: are you prepared for the perfect storm?

It’s 11.33am. Your mobile rings. For now, at least, it can! The news is troubling. A solar storm. To be more specific, a coronal mass ejection. Time to call upon the contingency plan. I presume you have one which specifically addresses a Carrington Event.

Much of our work in the aviation security arena revolves around preparing for events which are simply not going to happen. Incidents so infrequent that one stands a far better chance of winning the lottery big time! But prepare we do, as if disaster strikes our resilience, both physical and commercial, will depend upon the investment made ahead of time to train staff, develop security and communication protocols and test both our own responses and those of others.

There are threats out there which, if and when they become a reality, will impact upon us all. There will be no airline which immune, no airport which will not feel the effect and no government which will not have to deal with the economic fallout. And a Carrington Event is one natural event which could have catastrophic consequences. But, like other disasters, be they natural or man-made, we can mitigate the degree of devastation by adopting the Boy Scouts motto of ‘Be Prepared’.

It would appear that the British government regards the possibility of a severe coronal mass ejection as being a significant concern. In the conclusion to a Cabinet Office report, entitled ‘Space Weather Preparedness Strategy’, published in July this year it says, “Considerable progress building resilience to severe space weather has been achieved since the risk was first added to the National Risk Assessment in 2011” which is, in itself, of interest. But it goes on to specify that the resilience in question requires “the Department for Transport, Civil Aviation Authority and National Air Traffic Service to improve understanding of the potential impacts for aviation.”

So what is a coronal mass ejection and what would the impact be? Who better to turn to for a definition than the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) of the United States? “Coronal mass ejections (or CMEs) are huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several hours,” resulting in the release of huge quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space above the Sun’s surface. “Coronal Mass Ejections disrupt the flow of the solar wind and produce disturbances that strike the Earth with sometimes catastrophic results.”

The most famous incident took place on 1st September 1859 and was named the ‘Carrington Event’ (or the ‘Solar Storm of 1859’) after the British astronomer who witnessed the event. According to Frank Morring, Jr., Senior Editor of Space, Aviation Week & Space Technology, “That storm took down parts of the growing U.S. telegraph network, starting fires in the process and subjecting some telegraph operators to electric shock.” That, however, was in an era which pre-dated power grids, computers, GPS systems, satellites and mass communication; cars had yet to be invented and aircraft were science fiction.

Solar scientists are reporting an increasing level of solar activity which could be indicative of a serious incident being imminent – the ‘perfect storm’ could be one devoid of rain. In 1989 a space storm disrupted electricity networks in Quebec, Canada, resulting in a 9-hour power cut across the Province. A closer shave occurred in July 2012 when we were all saved by the position of planet Earth at the time of the event; a week earlier and we would have experienced a direct hit. One research scientist, Pete Riley, wrote in 2012 that, “the probability of another Carrington Event occurring within the next decade is ~12%.”