What is Modernity without Electricity?
THE FUTURIAN #4
Modernity as we know it is a complex interdependent system within which each individual element must operate for the system to function. This is particularly the case for the essentials in life. If you consider each aspect of your home, be it the refrigerator in your kitchen, pipes under your floors or the water that flows in and out of your house. All factors are dependent upon one key ingredient. Energy.
With the developments of modern technology, modernity still heavily relies on electricity; a 500-year-old discovery. Yet has this reliance left us vulnerable? The hardware that enables our homes to heat, water to flow and internet to function are all guarded against man made disruptions. Yet, what if the disruption comes not from humans, not even from Earth, but from a solar flare from the sun?
Our sun is an electrically charged ball of gas surrounded by a magnetic field. Similar to Earth, the sun has cycles. For the sun, this lasts roughly 11 years where the sun’s north and south poles reverse. During this cycle, eruptions such as solar flares can occur where energy is expelled from the sun in any direction. This includes towards the Earth. However, solar flares do not always disrupt the Earth negatively. During November 2021, a solar flare reached the Earth and caused a northern lights spectacle.
The Earth also is surrounded by a magnetic field which renders solar flares as harmless to humans but instead dangerous to the infrastructure we have in place that relies on magnetic fields. This includes the electrical grid, communication towers and water pumping stations.
The most intense solar flare recorded reached Earth in 1859, during which the northern lights could be seen throughout the northern hemisphere, even in the Caribbean. However, the power of this flare also destroyed the telegraph systems throughout North American and Europe.
Today, these plasma ejections are monitored constantly, giving Earth time to prepare. However, the sheer force of the Carrington event left only 18 hours from ejection to arrival. Since then, Earth has experienced less severe and more isolated disruptions which serve as a reminder of the effects a flare can have. In a time before the internet, online banking and central heating, this event was noteworthy rather than catastrophic. Yet, were a Carrington event to happen today, how would history record it?
During 2013, it was estimated that were a Carrington event to occur today, this would cost the US alone between 3.6% — 15.5% of their annual GDP. It begs the question: in the age of technology, what effect would a disruptive solar flare have on our digital world?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in the intangible economy. For long periods of 2020 and 2021, large mainstream retailers including food, fuel and pharmacies would no longer accept cash. Instead, customers had to pay by card or go home empty handed.
However, with a disruptive solar flare, the supply chain as modernity knows it would come to a halt. All fuel pumps would be fried. The panic buying seen in the UK during September 2021 as a result of speculative fuel shortages would be intensified so severely that any spare goods within supermarkets would be hastily bought up. This would leave many developed nations in a precarious position. The UK, for example, imports from abroad 45% of all food consumed. Of this, 38% relates to fruit, vegetables and meat. Were a solar flare to affect the UK, it would not have capacity to feed its nation alone for long.
While communication towers were affected during the Carrington event, this is likely to have a more severe affect given that communication is more closely aligned with an individual’s livelihood today. For some, COVID-19 has been a trial for working from home. Within the UK, almost 36% of full time employees worked from home during 2020. This was only made possible as a result of the intricate and reliable communication networks.
For those who were not able to work from home, commuting to and from work is only possible due to the electrical grid. During 2019, only 12% of commuters used bicycles or walked as their main mode of transport. All other commuters used cars, trains, buses and other motor vehicles.
With a disruptive solar flare, our access to heating and water would cease, our method of paying for goods would become instantly redundant and our ability to earn a living would stop.
All of this speculation almost came about during 2012 when a solar flare with similar attributes to the Carrington event narrowly missed the Earth. With all the modern technological uses we have, in 2012 Earth could do nothing but watch nature play itself out. Were a future solar flare to take aim towards Earth, we have no off-world defences to change its course.
But how should we prepare ourselves for this?
Today, the answer to this might appear somewhat bleak. Yet looking to the future, there are many reasons to be optimistic. As the Earth looks outwards from inter-country movement to the possibility of inter-planetary movement, so too have governments become more aware of the risks associated with space weather. In September 2021, the UK government published an updated National Space Strategy in which solar flare research is cited as one of their key goals. The work in the UK aims to provide much more notice of when a solar flare will hit. However, it does not mitigate the impact of Earth being hit.
So, while the evolution of modernity might be hurtling forward with the vast opportunities in space. Today, a solar flare similar to 1859 would wipe out modernity as we know it. Over reliance on modern technology and globalisation has left nations vulnerable to planetary wild cards. The results of which have been contained to science fiction in the past but might become our descendant’s future.
© Charlotte Aguilar-Millan 2021