This essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest.
On September 1, 1859, the Carrington Event happened—a massive solar storm that caused actual fires in telegraph stations due to sparks from wires. Our current best estimates for the frequency of these storms is around once every 150 years. I will note that 2022–1859 = 163 years. I will also note that no organism has anything resembling metal wires in its physiology, even though evolution could absolutely make wire-like constructs and such a thing would be useful in a variety of situations. I'd ADDITIONALLY note that the Carrington Event isn't necessarily the strongest solar storm that could ever happen.
If a Carrington-level Event were to happen today, it would be absolutely devastating to the planet. All of our satellites, including GPS, would be destroyed. There is a good chance that much of the data on the internet would be erased. During the event, it's not possible to communicate by radio, which would cause havoc among military forces, who would suddenly wonder if a nuclear attack has happened, yet be unable to contact anyone higher up in the chain of command. Supposedly, some military communication lines and data centers are "hardened" against a Carrington Event. I am very suspicious about these supposed protections, because I haven't seen robust testing to confirm that they are indeed resistant to Carrington-levels of solar storm. Anything not routinely tested and audited will almost certainly fail when we need it most. Even if some militaries are more prepared than I think they are, it is worth OpenPhil's investment to do a survey of military preparedness and expected responses to a Carrington Event.
My proposal is not to somehow mitigate a Carrington Event entirely. That's impossible. Regardless of what we do, many trillions of dollars will be lost the next time a Carrington Event happens. That's already locked-in. However, I think there are a few focus areas where an organization like OpenPhil could buy a decent amount of risk mitigation for minimal dollars:
Overall summary of highest impact per $ actions OpenPhil can take in this area.
1.) Fund research to survey military preparedness for a Carrington Event. Summarize the likely military results that would occur if a Carrington Event would happen today, with a special emphasis on the probability of an accidental nuclear exchange.
2.) Fund research to propose to governments mitigation strategies for a Carrington Event including securing food supplies, and establishing a strategic reserve of radio equipment and other computer technologies stored offline inside a Faraday cage.
1) Make sure that the militaries with nuclear weapons have actually reasonable safeguards in place to not launch nukes in the event of a Carrington Event. During a Carrington Event, radio stops working; the event would likely strike suddenly and without warning, and it would resemble an EMP attack or even a nuclear attack. Ideally, nuclear subs and other nuclear launch stations should have a clear way to discriminate between a Carrington Event and an EMP/nuclear attack and the training to actually make that discrimination. One way to make this discrimination might be to look for auroras—which happen during Carrington Events but not nuclear attacks—but there are almost certainly much better ways to make this distinction. I think that an organization like OpenPhil could potentially help an organization dedicated to developing materials or translating existing materials and making them available to militaries across the world.
2) A more ambitious project would be to develop a method of country-to-country communication that would function during the precious minutes of a Carrington Event when every other communication technology is utterly disrupted. Even if it would be a very expensive technology compared to telecommunication, it would probably be worth it to have it in place as a substitute for the mythical "red phone" in the White House. All-optical technologies / robust hardness + testing are options here.
3) OpenPhil could pay to build an ACTUALLY hardened data center (with routine Carrington-level tests) and store within it critical information of historical interest, or lobby governments to do the same. This would safeguard valuable historical data and help to rebuild the internet after it gets severely damaged during the next major solar storm.