One hundred years ago, on the fifteenth of May 1921, random telegraph and telephone offices in the United States and around the world suddenly burst into flames. Fuses were blown, equipment damaged, connections severed. Undersea telegraph cable service was interrupted. Aurora—as in “the northern lights”—appeared in Pasadena, California. The night sky in Boston was so bright you could read a newspaper.
A railroad office and switching system in New York were also destroyed. The event came to be known as the “New York Railroad Solar Storm of 1921.”
Earth had been slapped, and hard, by the sun. Three successive coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, had first weakened and then penetrated the planet’s natural defenses.
When this happens again, and it will, the after-effects will make the COVID-19 pandemic look like a warm-up act. Unless we are ready.
If we continue to move at the normal pace of government, we probably won’t be.
The last hundred years have seen an explosion of interconnected electronic and electrical systems that are both necessary to modern life and vulnerable to the effects of a powerful CME. While electrical grids and other systems are at risk, none are as vulnerable, impossible to protect, and critically important to daily life as the Global Positioning System.
Flying 12,000 miles above the Earth and circling twice a day, GPS satellites are exceptionally difficult to protect from an angry sun. Warnings that can allow equipment on the ground to be shut down or shielded are of minimal use in space. While temporarily taking satellites off-line might provide some protection, sensitive electrical equipment onboard can still be easily damaged or destroyed by a powerful solar event.
Highly precise GPS signals are not just essential for the safety and efficiency of every form of transportation; they have also been incorporated into virtually every networked technology, including telecommunications, the internet, ATMs and credit card transactions. A damaged GPS constellation would cause profound long-term damage to our economy and security. Some government officials have called GPS “a single point of failure” for America.