Barack Obama stands ready to defend you... against solar flares

The current issue of Mad Magazine has a clever, satirical list of things Barack Obama wants to accomplish during his final one hundred days in office. It includes agenda items like getting in a few rounds on golf courses where he would normally not be invited and mapping out the locations of fast food joints he wants to hit after his wife’s healthy eating garden is finally shut down. But not even the comic geniuses behind that piece saw this one coming. The President wants to get some plans in place to protect the planet against a devastating solar flare. (Engadget)

As President Barack Obama’s administration enters its final stages, he’s paying more attention to what’s going on way, way above us than expected. Just days after the president outlined his vision for landing humans on Mars by the 2030s, he issued an executive order calling for a plan that would help the country — and the systems that power it — cope with seriously bad space weather.

Now, fine: solar flares and geomagnetic storms probably haven’t disturbed your life too much so far. The thing is, they could, and our collectively deepening reliance on technology means these natural, regular events have the potential to do some serious damage.

“Space weather events, in the form of solar flares, solar energetic particles, and geomagnetic disturbances, occur regularly, some with measurable effects on critical infrastructure systems and technologies,” the order reads. “Extreme space weather events — those that could significantly degrade critical infrastructure — could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, healthcare, and transportation.”

While this sounds like fodder for plenty of jokes, it’s a serious subject and I find myself wishing that Obama had gotten moving on it long before he was a lame duck. Yes, we have plenty of other irons in the fire right now and resources are limited, but the dangers posed by a coronal mass ejection (CME) are very real and could send modern societies like the United States reeling toward a modern version of the dark ages in a worst case scenario. Engadget correctly points us to the CME of 1859, known as the famous Carrington event. There wasn’t much in the way of modern technology back then, but the country’s nascent telegraph system went completely bonkers for weeks.

[T]elegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.

If you’re not relying on technology to survive, such an event would mostly just be a spectacular light show from northern lights that extended down to the equator, but for those of us living in the 21st century it would be a disaster. Most of our satellites would be toast and massive power transformers around the country would be destroyed, leaving much of the nation without power for as much as five years while new ones were being constructed. We’re talking Walking Dead conditions.

There are plans out there to minimize the damage from such an event and reduce the resulting downtime, but they would all be hugely expensive and take time to implement. Getting people to sign on for such a price tag to prepare for an event which might not even happen in their lifetime is a tall order. But the fact remains that it could happen next week.

Will we actually do anything substantial on this front? Don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, keep the extra water, crackers and shotgun shells dry in your basement.