And why we should at least think about trying.
The Carrington Event of 1859 took place over the 1st and 2nd of September in that year. The effects lasted more than two days. A flare erupted from the Sun, and sped towards Earth at an abnormally high speed. When it arrived it caused auroras far closer to the equator than fit the status quo — at least as close as the country of Columbia. The pretty lights were pleasant, but the accompanying magnetic fist on the face of the planet was not. The only electrical systems in existence were telegraph lines, but that was enough. Two continents had a significant portion of their communication setups destroyed in a matter of hours.
Imagine what a geomagnetic storm like that could do to our civilization today. In 2013, an insurance organization called Lloyd’s of London partnered with Atmospheric & Environmental Research Inc. to research and write on the possible cost of a solar storm damaging the United States power grid. Their estimate was that a Carrington-level disaster would cost between 0.6 and 2.6 trillion dollars, and leave 20 to 40 million people without power for as few as 16 days and as long as two years.
On the 10th of January, 2017, the journal Space Weather published a paper that estimated the probability of another storm like the Carrington Event taking place over the next ten years. The authors, Pete Riley and Jeffrey Love, came up with two numbers, corresponding with two different ways of approaching the problem. Their first prediction was that there was a 3.0% chance. Their second was a 20.3% chance. We’re going to take the average of those two predictions, with apologies to the authors, and assume a roughly 12% chance of a Carrington Event-level geomagnetic storm occurring within ten years.
That’s worryingly high. A storm as powerful as our benchmark is rare, but weaker ones are a possibility as well, and we can’t defend against either of them. In our current situation, there is no way to stop one of these storms at their source, there’re very few ways to keep them from destroying said network, and there’s no way to block them.
Wait, back up.
There might be a way to protect ourselves from another Carrington Event, to block another storm of that intensity. Early in 2017, during NASA’s Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, a team gave a presentation describing their research on giving Mars a magnetic field. Their idea was to place a magnet at the Mars-Sun L1 (Langrange point 1 — where centripetal acceleration, Mars’ gravity, and the Sun’s gravity all cancel out), and the resulting magnetotail would cover Mars and protect it from the constant flood of particles radiating out of the sun.
That same concept works for the Earth. A magnetship at the Earth-Sun L1 point could shield our planet and our grid from a natural disaster on the greatest scale, saving trillions of dollars and likely hundreds, thousands of lives. It wouldn’t be an easy project; it would require a significant investment of time and money, but the payoff would be worth it.
We would have peace of mind, a wealth of knowledge we would gain in the pursuit of our safety, and a world protected from a threat we now stand powerless against.