Early on in my consulting career – late 1980s, early 1990s – I did a lot of work for a public sector organisation. I worked on a number of projects – this was in the days when IT consultants could still be generalists, applying their skills to whatever was needed – and tended to specialise on development of a few database applications that were centrally based and accessed over a (pre-Internet) wide area network, held together by leased lines, private cabling, etc.
All in all, a fantastic environment in which to hone your skills. Actually, in many respects I was rather spoilt by this client – and by my first job out of university – they both gave me a rather distorted view of working life! For a while we experienced some rather ‘odd’ problems on some of the applications running over the wide area network. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t actually ground the problems – we checked software, hardware, cabling, the works. Eventually, and half jokingly, a colleague and I (both of us radio amateurs) decided that the problems were being some how caused by sun spots….
Unsurprisingly, this caused gales of laughter in the office, but as far as we were concerned there was an element of logic in our proposal. We knew that sun spots and solar activity in general had an effect on the earth’s ionosphere, and that in the past bad solar storms had knocked out telephone and communication systems. Indeed, in the pre-Internet, pre-computer days of 1859 a major solar storm had caused incredible effects, even causing telegraph wires to carry electrical currents when all the batteries were disconnected!
This information did little to convince people around the office, so we simply did what any other self respecting techie would do; turn things off and on, replace a few network cards and bridges, tighten connections and tweak software. And the odd errors stopped, and we stopped worrying about it.
But over teh years I’ve thought about those gremlins on numerous occasions, and it now appears that we may have been right after all. According to this article, solar storms can cause mystery glitches in communication and computer systems.
It may be that the next time we get a big solar storm or Coronal Mass Ejection – when a massive plume of plasma and charged particles is thrown from teh sun out in to space – the impact will be much more than a few gremlins in the works. Some have suggested that a storm similar to that of 1859 might cause massive damage to the electrical and communications systems of the world; indeed, some real pessimists have suggested that a BIG solar event might put us back in to the pre-electronics age for decades.
Let’s hope we don’t get it…