notes a New Scientist piece calling attention to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, which attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of severe solar electromagnetic storms
. "In 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington noticed 'two patches of intensely bright and white light' near some sunspots. At the same time, Victorian era magnetometers went off the charts, stunning auroras were being viewed at the equator, and telegraph networks were disrupted — sparks flew from terminals and ignited telegraph paper on fire. It became known as the Carrington event, and the National Academy of Sciences worries about the impact of another such event today and the lack of awareness among officials. It would induce un-designed-for voltages in all high-voltage, long-distance power lines, and destroy transformers, as Quebec learned in 1989. Without electricity, water would stop flowing from the tap, gasoline would stop being pumped, and health care would cease after the emergency generators gave up the ghost after 72 hours. Replacing all of the transformers would take months, if not years. The paradox would be that underdeveloped countries would fare better than developed ones. Our only warning system is a satellite called the Advanced Composition Explorer, in solar orbit between the Sun and the Earth. It is 11 years old and past its planned lifespan. It might give us as much as 15 minutes of warning, and transformers might be able to be disconnected in time. But currently no country has such a contingency plan."