The Anthropology of Space Weather

An anthropological look at a strange kind of weather that comes from outer space…

A.R.E. Taylor

Amidst recent calls to ‘de-terrestrialise’ anthropological thought (Howe 2015; Olson and Messeri 2015), I would like to introduce a very different kind of weather into the purview of anthropological analysis: ‘space weather’.

Unlike terrestrial weather, space weather cannot be seen or otherwise sensed by human beings. Nor does it take place in the troposphere, where most terrestrial weather systems develop. Space weather is an umbrella term that is used to describe electromagnetic disturbances that occur in the near-Earth space environment. It arises when electrically-charged particles ejected from the Sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field (Fig. 1). This electromagnetic interactivity can trigger global fluctuations in the planet’s magnetic field. The northern lights (aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis) are understood to be visible manifestations of this electromagnetic interactivity.

Figure 1 NASA Diagram of Stellar Magnetic Fields. Credit: NASA

Along with auroral displays, these energetic interactions can also generate powerful electrical currents in the upper atmosphere. These currents can induce destructive high-voltage surges in the electronics of space-born infrastructure like satellites and can flow into the earth, causing damage to conducting material such as pipelines, power grids, communications systems and other critical infrastructure (Fig. 2). The last decade has seen space weather rapidly move onto national security agendas around the world as a key threat to the infrastructure systems that underpin industrialised society. According to the UK Government’s 2015 National Risk Register, a severe space weather event could cause ‘disruption to the ground digital components found in all modern technology’ (UK Cabinet Office 2015: 26).

Figure 2 The space-weathered world: NASA illustration showing technological infrastructure affected by space weather. Credit: NASA

In the popular press, space weather events are often represented as entailing the prolonged loss of digital technologies and electrical infrastructure on a continental or planetary scale, lasting for months or even years. The imagined technological and societal disruption is typically configured temporally as a violent ‘return’ to an earlier state of pre-digital being, with news headlines frequently proclaiming that a severe space weather event would ‘send us back to the Stone Age’ (Anthony 2014) — or some other decidedly pre-digital point in time. Public and political discourse on the space weather threat connects long-standing narratives of technological progress and mastery with contemporary concerns about humanity’s perceived dependency on interdependent and interconnected digital systems.

The catastrophic imaginary that guides many space weather preparedness efforts today is based upon a space weather event that occurred between the 28–30 August and the 1–2 September, 1859. Auroral displays were witnessed in the tropics, with sightings at latitudes as far south as Hawaii, Colombia and Cuba (Fig. 3). The astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792–1871) noted that ‘These auroras were accompanied with unusually great electromagnetic disturbances in every part of the world’ (cited in Youmans 1872: 158). Telegraphic communications were severely disrupted as electrical currents swept through the wires, making it difficult if not impossible for operators to send messages (see Prescott 1860). Power surges overloaded currents and sent out sparks, causing fires in telegraph stations and giving operators electric shocks (Clauer and Siscoe 2006). This event came to be known as The Carrington Event. It was named after the English astronomer Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875), who happened to witness one of the solar flares erupt that space weather scientists today recognise as the cause of the auroral display and telegraphic standstill. Carrington’s observations suggested a connection might exist between terrestrial electromagnetic disturbances and solar activity, spurning on scientific investigations into solar-terrestrial relations and eventually leading to the emergence of space weather as a scientific field.

Figure 3 Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis.” Some speculate that Church took his inspiration from the Great Auroral Storm of 1859. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is a long-standing anthropological interest in the diverse and dynamic relationships that human social groups have formed with the Sun, from early ethnographic studies of the rituals, mythologies and magic practices organised around the rising and setting of the Sun (e.g. Malinowski 2002 [1922]: 99; Evans-Pritchard 1976) to more recent studies of the role that solar power plays in energy development projects (e.g. Boyer 2011; Cross 2013). The social practices and cultural implications surrounding the production and imagination of space weather preparedness provides a valuable opportunity to explore a very different kind of relationship that humanity is constructing with the Sun.

While the metaphor of ‘weather’ may serve to familiarise this strange, extra-terrestrial electromagnetism, as this non-Earthly weather is brought into political organisation, it is defamiliarising and reshaping understandings of the planet Earth’s place in the solar system and of humanity’s relationship to planetary-spanning digital systems.

As such, an anthropological analysis of space weather provides a valuable window onto newly emerging imaginations and perceptions of what it means to live on an increasingly technologised planet only eight light-minutes away from the Sun.


This article originally appeared on Weather Matters, an online hub for anthropologists working on issues related to weather and climate change.

References

Anthony, Sebastian. 2014. The Solar Storm of 2012 that Almost Sent us Back to a Post-Apocalyptic Stone Age. Extremetech.com. 24 July.

Boyer, Dominic. 2011. Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy. Anthropology News, pp. 5–6.

Clauer, C. Robert and George Siscoe, eds. 2006. The Great Historical Geomagnetic Storm of 1859: A Modern Look. Advances in Space Research. Volume 38, Issue 2, pp. 117–118.

Cross, Jamie. 2013. The 100th Object: Solar Lighting Technology and Humanitarian Goods. Journal of Material Culture. Volume 18, №4, pp. 367–387.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howe, Cymene. 2015. Life Above Earth: An Introduction. Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 30, №2, pp. 203–209.

Malinowski, Bronisław. 2002 [1922]. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Quinea. London: Routledge.

Olson, Valerie and Lisa Messeri. 2015. Beyond the Anthropocene: Un-Earthing an Epoch. Environment and Society: Advances in Research. Vol. 6, pp. 28–47.

Prescott, George B. 1860. History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph. Boston, Massachusetts and London: Ticknor and Fields, Trübner. University of Cambridge Library, Rare Books Collection, Classmark: IV.30.9.

UK Cabinet Office. 2015. National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. Published March 2015.

Youmans, Edward Livingstone. 1872. The Spots on the Sun. Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 1, June.


Based with the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, A.R.E. Taylor works at the intersection of digital anthropology, critical data studies, media archaeology and science and technology studies. He co-runs the Social Studies of Outer Space Network and is an editorial assistant for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. He is also a co-founder of the Black Sky Resilience Group, a network of researchers, policy makers and industry leaders exploring societal and infrastructure resilience in relation to global catastrophic risks. His research interests include: technology and modernity, futures, outer space, techno-apocalyptic narratives, data preservation and pre-digital nostalgia.

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