How our dependence on electronic media might leave us stranded.
I’m writing these words 1 by flickering candlelight, taking small sips from a cup of steaming hot tea. Unfortunately I’m not relaxing after a romantic dinner, there’s no electricity in the house – hence the candlelight, and it’s not evening but eight o’clock in the morning. It’s the middle of a good old-fashioned Scandinavian winter, it’s freezing cold outside and there’s still an hour until sunrise. I boiled tea water in a sauce pan on top of the wood stove; having ready access to firewood is obviously a must in situations such as these.
I’ve been without electricity since last morning when an unusually violent storm (the wind apparently reached the strength of a hurricane a little further out at sea), reduced my neighbor’s garage to rubble and broke the power pole that connects my house with the power grid, straight off as if it were a toothpick.
Our entire neighborhood has been without electricity due to a broken larger power pole for the subtransmission lines, but they all got their electricity back yesterday. My neighbor and my home are the only houses that haven’t got the electricity back yet. This is a rural area, but an entire city a bit further north was also without electricity for several hours. This town houses a major hospital, and no electricity could naturally have fatal results in a place where sick people receive treatment.
Naturally hospitals are prepared for all sorts of eventualities, they are required to have a backup solution for emergencies, powerful diesel generators kept the hospital operative while the rest of the city lay in darkness.
The point of no return
Some inventions have had the potential to shape our society and have left indelible marks on human history. Technologies such as the printing press, the steam engine, the camera, the light bulb, planes, cars, and computers have changed our ways of life forever. The introduction of these technologies marked a tipping point where mankind reached maturity. Cars have forever made the horse and carriage superfluous and we are no longer dependent on mere animals to get around. Engines reduced sailboats to toys, we don’t need favorable winds in order to cross the great oceans anymore. The light bulb and electricity have made us less dependent on daylight in order to live our lives and we don’t need to wait until the sun rises in order to go to work as sunset does not restrict our activities. Most of these changes are for the better, although it is also true that there are downsides to the industrial age. Yet human civilization simply cannot return to bygone days.
Electricity and the innumerable technologies that relies on them represents such a quantum leap for humanity that we cannot imagine life without the conveniences that we now take for granted. Not only does electricity provide the basis for our modern-day household, but a large portion of workplaces are also completely dependent on the crackling juice flowing through the cables. Non-electric life is unfathomable to us as we’ve reached a point of no return where we’ve become completely dependent on a single commodity. As a society we have put all our eggs in one basket, and do not have any back up plans for an emergency of a more lasting character.
The swan song of paper and ink?
The conversations of our society are hooked up to the grid. The magic images of television, the drumbeat of the Internet and social media, the reassuring voice of the radio; the voices of all become muted without electricity. The ready availability of electronic media have made us love and increasingly depend upon them for our information and entertainment.
On the other hand traditional print-based media, especially newspapers, has been declining for a long time. From 1985 to 2011 a total number of 294 newspapers disappeared in the US, or 11 newspapers being shut down every year on average. 2 Advertising revenue for newspapers have steadily gone down, and in the US roughly a quarter of journalists have lost their jobs since 2000.
Static media have to some degree been replaced by electronic media, and this is not restricted to newspapers. Only 8 percent of adults polled in 1978 reported that they hadn’t read a single book that year. In 2014, the number had increased to 23 percent. Not only do some people not read books at all, but those who do read, read considerably less than before. In 1972 42 percent said that they had read more than 11 books, while in 2014 the number had dropped to 28 percent. 3 Less demand for reading material has also hampered our access to books. As public use of libraries have declined, funding has been cut and many libraries have been shut down in order to balance constrained public budgets. It’s not an unreasonable assumption that competition from electronic media is an important part of the dynamics behind this drop, since the drop in print based media is accompanied by an increase in screen time, for adults and children alike.
However, the advantages of our new way of life have made us vulnerable in new ways. If we gradually neglect the products of the printing press in favor of electronic alternatives, mankind might one day be in for a rude awakening.
The threat from outer space
Our electric infrastructure isn’t merely vulnerable towards local disasters such as storms, floods and earthquakes, we’re exposed on a broader and much more fundamental level. In 1859 electricity was largely a new and unused resource. The light bulb wasn’t yet invented, and the only practical use of electricity was for the telegraph system, still in its infancy. This year the sun had a violent eruption, the solar superstorm of 1859, today referred to as the “Carrington event”, or “Carrington super flare”. The sun regularly has outbreaks, so-called coronal mass ejections (CME) where a shock wave of solar plasma is launched into space. When a CME hits earth it will disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field and result in a geomagnetic storm. This was essentially what happened in 1859, a massive eruption of charged particles hit earth and wreaked havoc on the telegraph system.
Telegraph equipment was disrupted and communication was hindered all over the world. Observers reported waking up at midnight by a display of Aurora Borealis that was so strong that they could read newspaper print without an external light source:
”On the night of [September 1] we were high up on the Rocky Mountains sleeping in the open air. A little after midnight we were awakened by the auroral light, so bright that one could easily read common print. Some of the party insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast. The light continued until morning, varying in intensity in different parts of the heavens, and slowly changing position. We can best describe it as the sky being overcast with very light urns clouds, wafted before a gentle breeze, and lighted up by an immense conflagration. It had rained for fifty hours before, only ceasing about twelve hours before the auroral light” 4
Other telegraph operators reported that they could send messages even when they disconnected their equipment from the power source, because the lines themselves were electrified. It was reported that sparks that flew from wires started fires, and the New York Times published a now classic account of a telegraph operator that received an electric shock when he attempted to use his equipment:
“During the display I was calling Richmond, and had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground-wire which runs down the wall near the sounder. Immediately, I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the sounder. The Morse line experienced the same difficulty in working.” 5
Smaller events have occurred with regular intervals. Dozens of smaller geomagnetic storms that disrupted communications during the 1900’s are on record, the majority of which are forgotten today even if some of them must have been quite powerful and would have had drastic results if they had happened today. As an example, how many today remember the the “New York Railroad Storm” in 1921 that disabled the railroad signal system, and sparked a fire that destroyed the Central New England Railroad station? Or the powerful “The Easter Sunday Storm” in 1940 that generated such powerful electric currents that almost every single long-distance telegraph and telephone office in the US afterwards needed repair? 6
The most recent solar storms that are most well known today are perhaps the Quebec blackout storm of March, 1989 when circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, causing a blackout that affected millions of people for 12 hours. Last decade we also had the so-called “Halloween Storm” of October 29, 2003, suspected to be the cause for the the loss of the 640 million USD ADEOS-2 research satellite. 7
The cosmic warning from the sun
An event such as the Carrington super flare, or an even stronger storm, can happen again. In 2012, we came close to the complete disaster. The sun erupted and the following coronal mass ejection was believed to be at least as powerful as the Carrington event, perhaps even stronger. If the eruption had happened one week earlier, Earth would have been in the trajectory of the eruption and would have experienced a disastrous magnetic storm.
Communication satellites would have been knocked out, transformers would fail all over the world, there would be innumerable big and small short circuits, equipment connected to the grid would fail, causing blackouts of an unprecedented scale. A study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the total cost of such a superstorm could be more than 2 trillion USD in the US alone, 8 20 times more than the costs of the hurricane Katrina.
Disturbingly, if a geomagnetic superstorm of this magnitude happened it would take months, perhaps even years to fully repair the electricity grid. In addition all sorts of household electrical devices plugged into the wall would most likely fail and replacing these would be costly for the common man when you keep in mind that the economic law of supply and demand would inflate prices.
Exactly how likely is it that we’ll experience a solar superstorm? Of course, there’s no way to predict such an event, but it is nevertheless possible to say something about the odds of it happening. Physicist Pete Riley published a paper in the February 2014 issue of Space Weather called “On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events”. On the basis of the record of known solar storms, he estimated that the probability of another geomagnetic storm comparable to the Carrington event happening during the next decade was a stunning 12%! 9
Preparing to be disconnected
Benjamin Franklin once said that “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. This is certainly the case right now because we have absolutely no plans implemented for the possibility of cosmic events such as a massive geomagnetic storm. It’s troubling to see that in our age where so much information is stored electronically, there’s no plan B!
Why the silence about this issue? Our society could in an instant be put 50 years back in time, yet few measures have been implemented to prepare for such an event, except for scientific programs that monitor the sun. If a major CME happened we would know a short time in advance, yet we would be powerless to do anything except wait for the impending disaster.
Fortunately, after a long time of silence and inactivity on this subject from the government, something is finally happening! The White House recently published documents outlining a plan for how to deal with space weather events.10
Although it’s a step in the right direction, it remains to see to what degree it’s possible to safeguard ourselves against solar flares. Merely having a plan doesn’t mean that we’re safe. For instance, as a society we’ve known about the dangers of global warming for decades, yet we’ve been unable to make the necessary precautions in order to avert climate change. Likewise, it’s an open question if we’re able to do anything about this threat, especially if mitigating against solar flares means costly investments.
Is there then anything the average Joe can do in preparation for the possibility of a geomagnetic storm, from the point of view of media and information technology? First of all I’d strongly suggest that people regularly make cold storage backups of important computer files on DVDs. Cloud storage is perhaps more deceptive than we realize and shouldn’t be trusted for backup. Even if the data survived you couldn’t trust that you have access to it even when the electricity returns to your home.
Most importantly: support your local library, don’t terminate your subscription to your favorite newspaper and don’t even think of throwing away your books and encyclopedias!
The information age hubris
Those who are familiar with Greek mythology will remember the tragic story of Icarus, whose father built wings of feathers and wax and together they both attempted to escape from Crete by flying. Unfortunately Icarus didn’t heed his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he plunged from the sky to his death.
Being without electricity for a couple of days was enough to make me crave access to the Internet, now imagine being without your TV, computer or smartphone for the next couple of years! The prospect of having to live for months, perhaps years without electricity is sobering. It’s not in the scope of this article to discuss all the implications of such an event, so let’s limit ourselves to the media. In the case of a crisis resulting in a prolonged blackout printing presses could still be operated supported by diesel generators, but without electricity TV, radio and the Internet would be inaccessible to us. Life without electricity would be inconvenient in a number of ways, but life would eventually go on while the electric grid was being restored. The media fills an important function in our society and we would still need news and information even during a blackout lasting months or years. That’s why we should remember that newspapers, printing presses and libraries already shut down won’t be magically revived if there’s a long-lasting blackout.
Perhaps our eagerness to replace print based media with electronic substitutes such as TV, radio and the Internet, is a hubris similar to Icarus’. We’ve been on this planet for a very long time but from a cosmic point of view we’ve only been hooked up to electricity for a brief moment. Nobody questions the wisdom of the gradual move away from paper and ink as a way of storing information, nobody asks about the downside of storage systems based on magnetism rather than pen and paper. For a while, everything is seemingly okay, but the sun might one day punish our frivolity.
The realities of our position in space ought to make us humble enough to appreciate the fact that access to electronic medias such as the Internet and radio, is not a right but a privilege. On the other hand access to books and magazines cannot be taken away from us as long as we’re wise enough to preserve them, the classics in your bookshelves would still be there for you. Most of us will agree that the ready availability of information that we get through the Internet is a blessing, but there is a real danger if we continue to neglect books and magazines in favor of electronic alternatives. Radio waves and access to the Internet might be more fragile than we imagine.
That’s why the printing press should remain the backbone of our society and we should regard any development that reduces our dependence on the printing press with suspicion. Of course, the ultimate danger isn’t an Internet apocalypse lasting a year or two, as much as becoming a society that doesn’t any longer care about books and newspapers.
This article was written earlier this year. A rough draft of this article was written on old-fashioned paper, it was obviously expanded considerably and finished later when the electricity had returned. The electricity eventually returned late in the evening, after being gone for nearly 36 hours… ↩
[New York Times, Sept. 5, 1859.] ↩