Jack Ohman

Editorial cartoonist, writer and Joe King’s alter ego

Editorial notebook: Solar storm would be the end of the world as we know it

07/26/2014 12:00 AM

07/25/2014 12:48 PM

On June 23, 2012, while we sat tweeting, Facebooking, using fresh water, riding in airplanes with sophisticated electronic navigation systems, and generally enjoying ready access to electricity, the sun just about wiped all that out.

How?

Well, as we were happily charging our iPhones and watching SportsCenter, the sun shot out a billion-ton plasma cloud, called a coronal mass ejection, or CME. As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, the mass ejection just missed Earth; had it been a week earlier, you could have kissed most electronic devices plugged into wall sockets goodbye. Satellites would have been crippled, and the litany of potential electrical catastrophes is chilling to ponder.

We take electricity and water for granted. We all have surge protectors jammed with plugs, powering our lives and occupations. But let’s say all the electrical systems at a hospital failed, for example. Surgeries and monitoring that we take for granted would have been aborted, and people would have died. Now multiply that times all the hospitals in the entire world, and the scope of the CME becomes clearer.

Scientists estimated that this could have been a $2 trillion hit to the world economy, as mankind struggled to rebuild melted transformers and fried power lines, and reboot computers that regulate virtually every aspect of modern life.

This under-reported near-miss places our lives in perspective. It certainly puts the Kardashians on the back burner.

We have become so accustomed to instant automation that society would have ground to a halt for months, if not years. No bill Congress could pass would immediately restore power, and simple pleasures in life, like refrigeration and clean water, could have become precious.

“Hey, remember ice cream?”

“Yeah. Pass me that salted raccoon jerky.”

“We only have the squirrel left.”

A coronal mass ejection also occurred in September 1859. Named the Carrington Event, after the English astronomer who detected it, it had sparse impact on the world, since we had very little in the way of electronic activity. Some telegraph poles burst into flames, but that’s about it. The horses and buggies kept rolling, the candles stayed on and the butter-churning continued.

Anyone out there know how to churn butter? Show of hands. Anyone?

I didn’t think so.

So, let’s give thanks it didn’t happen, and remember one thing:

After you read this, print newspapers are looking pretty good, aren’t they?

Now pass me the raccoon jerky.

About This Blog

Jack Ohman joined The Sacramento Bee in 2013. He previously worked at the Oregonian, the Detroit Free Press and the Columbus Dispatch. His work is syndicated to more than 200 newspapers by Tribune Media Services. Jack has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Scripps Foundation Award and the national SPJ Award, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and the Herblock Prize in 2013. Contact Jack at johman@sacbee.com. Twitter: @JACKOHMAN.

 

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