On 1st September 1859 telegraph operators were using the latest technology to send and receive messages along wires that stretched across North America and Europe. Outside there were strange lights in the sky – the Aurora Borealis visible much further south than usually and shining so brightly that people had been able to read newspapers outdoors by night. Suddenly jolts of electricity surged through the telegraph sets, giving the telegraphists shocks and in some cases setting fire to their equipment. Once the phenomenon calmed down, it took weeks to get this rudimentary technology working properly again.
It was a very unlikely event that had huge consequences. A bit like COVID-19. Yet one of the consequences of COVID-19 – a big (and probably permanent) shift to remote working – might well put us in greater peril of a risk whose consequences could be even worse and longer-lasting.
That is because we are accelerating our dependence on distant technology to run our world. Organisations have been encouraged to move their operations into the cloud, which is not really a cloud. It is a network of corporately-owned data centres held together by global cable and satellite networks. Online banking, online retail, online office work. GPS, global supply chains. Online everywhere, all the time. Don’t store data and run applications locally; do it all in the cloud.
Add to that our telecommunications. We have come a long, long way from the telegraph, and even the telephone. Remote working needs high bandwidth telecoms, and COVID-19 has been a boon for Microsoft Teams, Zoom and all the rest. It has proved that, hey, we can run meetings and get things done even if we aren’t in our usual workplace. Don’t forget the role of the smartphone as well.
We are now super-tech-dependent. What could possibly go wrong? Whatever it is, it must be so vanishingly unlikely to happen we don’t need to worry about it.
1st September 1859 showed how thinking that way could unleash a nightmare. What knocked out the telegraph systems and much of the electrical infrastructure of the time was a massive solar storm – called the Carrington Event, after Richard Carrington, the amateur astronomer who observed the sun while it happened. A solar storm is a phenomenon that often sees a ‘coronal mass ejection’ fired out into space. This is a cloud of highly-charged electrical particles which can penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and did so that day. Harmless to humans (unless you’re an astronaut) but potentially deadly to satellite systems, electrical power grids and so much of the kit that holds our super-tech-dependent world together.
A major solar flare could set off the kind of domino tripping out of overloaded high-voltage electrical circuits that threw the east coast of the US into darkness on 9th November 1965 when a safety relay failed. 30 million people were affected; over 800,000 were trapped in darkness on the New York subway; 75 hospitals lost all power. Except it would be far worse. Electrical systems might be down not for thirteen hours but weeks and weeks. Which means massive data centres and telecom networks would soon be out of action. Huge amounts of data, which hold our economy together, might be lost. Coping with a natural disaster, like a pandemic, would be impossible.
For a taste of the potential consequences, read ‘The Second Sleep’ by Robert Harris. And if you think I’m being a bit alarmist, look at these web articles. This isn’t fake news.
We are overdue for being in the line of a massive solar storm; one just missed us in July 2012. COVID-19 has taught us how under-prepared we were for something that was – in the final analysis – predictable. Are you confident our governments, tech giants and every other significant organisation are prepared for a Carrington 2.0?
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