Cloudy, with a chance of apocalypse

Features editor

If the skies over Northern England and Scotland clear over the next couple of nights, readers lucky enough to live there might get the rare opportunity of seeing the shimmering curtain of the Aurora Borealis over their homes. That’s because, on Valentine’s Day, an enormous tongue of plasma, accompanied by a bubble of magnetic field, erupted from the surface of the sun and started hurtling out into the solar system, resulting in a deluge of charged particles that’s currently hitting the Earth’s protective magnetic field.

Solar astronomers call this an X-class flare — one of the more severe variety — and it’s something that might well happen more often as the sun begins to enter a more active phase.

Solar weather being as unpredictable as the British kind, it’s a sheer coincidence that this happened just as I was writing our next issue’s cover feature, which happens to be about the impact that space weather has on technology on Earth, and what can be done to protect it. I had no idea this was going to happen a month ago, when I started working on it.

On the one hand, this gives my feature a welcome bit of topicality. On the other, it means that a chunk of my carefully-gathered research is now all over the newspapers and on every news broadcast. There goes my element of surprise.

It’s been interesting to see some of the responses to the news. ’Dear news service,’ one well-known science fiction author was seen to grumble on Twitter yesterday, ’you say not to worry about the massive coronal ejection from the Sun and then you call it THE X-FLARE?’

Meanwhile, the most common technological side-effect that’s been mentioned is that your sat-nav might stop working. This is very true, so it might be an idea to break out that prime piece of dead-tree technology, the map. But what hasn’t been mentioned so much is that it isn’t the thing in your car that might not be working. It’s the satellites. And they do a lot more than just telling drivers which exit of the motorway they should be aiming for.

And this is where we get to the crux of the space weather issue. The sheer magnitude of the sun’s activity — what it’s capable of, and how much power it actually wields — is fairly alarming. But where it gets really scary is how it shows up just how dependent our lifestyles have become on technology that was never designed to be linked together, and what might happen if circumstances utterly beyond our control and impossible to predict start to affect those systems.

You’ll be able to read a lot more about this — and, you’ll be relieved to hear, the efforts being made to prevent the apocalyptic breakdown of technology-driven society — a week on Monday, when our next issue is published. In the meantime, hope for clear skies and enjoy the cosmic show. And try not to be alarmed.