The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. P
“What goes around, comes around.” That seems true in the case of pottery as well as stone, clay, and ceramic tablets. Japanese pottery from the Jomon period dates back more than 13,000 years and contains some of what is believed to be the oldest human writing that still exists in the world. Cuneiform tablets that contain writing created by the Sumerians have survived for 5,000 years. Acid-free paper is expected to survive only a few hundred years while today’s paper – with its acids – has a much shorter life expectancy. Microfilm and microfiche are expected to last only 300 years and even then, only if it is stored under ideal temperature and humidity conditions. Magnetic tapes, floppy disks, and other modern media are expected to last only a decade or two unless someone copies those items every decade or two. (Luckily, that is easy to do.)
Perhaps the greatest threat to the storage of electronic information is a rare solar storm called the “Carrington Event.” The last major Carrington Event to hit the earth took place in 1859, a time when there was almost no electronic information in existence. Studies have shown that a solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause more widespread problems for a modern and technology-dependent society.
The Carrington Event is a magnetic storm, not physical.
In the 1859 Carrington Event, papers in telegraph offices caught fire. Even with batteries disconnected, operators found that the telegraph wires could carry their messages over vast distances. This was the largest solar storm ever recorded. In 2005, a very small magnetic storm from the sun disrupted satellite-to-ground communication and the GPS system for about 10 minutes — threatening satellite-guided travel by air, sea, and land. It contained only a fraction of the power of a Carrington Event.
If a full-sized Carrington Event happened today, it would jeopardize global telecommunications, knock out orbiting satellites, and threaten to kill astronauts. It also would probably wipe out every hard disk drive, floppy disk, CD-ROM disk, flash drive, and every other form of magnetic or electronic storage, even on devices that are powered off and disconnected.
If a Carrington Event happened today, the world would likely have to deal with the simultaneous loss of GPS, cellphone reception, all computers, and much of the power grid.
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