Let’s be honest…many of the “doomsday” ideas that we hear thrown out regarding the imminent demise of our way of life seem a little…well…outlandish. I mean, okay, so maybe polar shifts are possible and little old North Korea is going to take down the American power grid with an EMP attack, but…really? That hint of doubt that you no doubt hear in my words grows into a loud laughter of skepticism among those who do not share my preparedness mindset. They dismiss those ideas and countless others as not likely to happen. Yet, there are many potential events that could very reasonably occur without ANY notice, and each of them would cause an immediate end of the world as we know it. One such event is a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).
In some ways, CMEs present a threat similar to an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). A main difference is that EMPs are manmade, whereas CMEs are a natural phenomenon that can AND DO occur at any time, without notice.
To bring our modern society to a halt, I do not think we need an event that is as large as a Carrington Event. It could be much smaller, simply because of the connectedness of our power grid and also the entire technological system – NASA scientist Lika Guhathakurta, 2014
So what is a coronal mass ejection? How do we know about them? What kind of threat do they represent? Read on:
Solar activity is basically separated into four main components, any of which can impact Earth if conditions are right:
- Solar flares
- Coronal Mass Ejection
- High-speed solar wind
- Solar energetic particles
What is a Coronal Mass Ejection?
A CME is a large clouds of plasma and magnetic fields that erupt from the Sun. They can erupt in any direction, but only when the cloud is aimed at Earth will it potentially have any effect. Here’s a good description from the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center’s Primer on Space Weather:
The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields. Where these fields are closed, often above sunspot groups, the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections. A large coronal mass ejection can contain 1016 grams (ten billion tons) of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour in a spectacular explosion. Solar material streaks out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. A coronal mass ejection is sometimes associated with flares but usually occur independently.
As the CME moves through the interplanetary medium (the plasma-like material that fills the solar system), it can create a disturbance known as a geomagnetic storm.
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These geomagnetic storms are what have an impact here on Earth, and can cause devestating problems. Most commonly, the storms result in auroras (i.e., the “Aurora Borealis” in the Northern hemisphere and the “Aurora Australis” in the Southern hemisphere) being seen further south than normal. However, geomagnetic storms can also disrupt communications or navigation systems. The storms can also heat the Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to expand. This causes satellites to experience more drag in the (slightly) denser atmosphere, causing them to change course. This is what happened to Skylab in 1979.
But, the most damaging (and frightening) effect that can be produced is catastrophic damage to the electrical power grid. The geomagnetic storm can induce electrical currents in the long power transmission lines, which can damage transformers. And, it’s not just one or two transformers; it can happen across a wide area and lead to a cascading power failure, especially if the event occurs in a period of higher demand for electricity (e.g., during peak power periods during very cold or hot weather). A widespread power outage can also lead to permanent damage to high-voltage breakers, transformers, and generation plants too.
If it had hit earth, we would still be picking up the pieces. We need to be prepared! – Daniel Baker, University of Colorado
All this can happen quickly, without time to recognize that it’s happening and try to avoid it. When the damage is done it can be catastrophic. A very strong storm such as the one we narrowly escaped in 2012 would cause a massive amount of damage to power grid components. Utility companies would not have an adequate supply of spare transformers and parts. In addition, some very large transformers are no longer made in the United States and must be imported from overseas, and they can take many months to produce just one.
Think a coronal mass ejection isn’t likely or don’t occur frequently? You’re wrong. CMEs occur frequently and are one of the many reasons why it is prudent and YOUR responsibility to be prepared for yourself and your family. Just look at this video of the very near miss we all escaped in 2012.
The Carrington Event
The most severe geomagnetic storm on record happened on September 1, 1859. Popularly known as the Carrington event, it’s named after Richard Carrington, one of England’s foremost solar astronomers, who witnessed and recorded the event. The storm caused telegraph systems all over the Northern hemisphere to fail and even shocked some telegraph operators. Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire.
As cited on NASA’s page on the Social and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather:
A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the [National Academy of Sciences] report warns.
Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina.
In summary, this means that a coronal mass ejection could produce a geomagnetic storm that could knock out the power grid for years in a severe enough event. The loss of electricity will bring much of our modern American lifestyle to a complete standstill. Try to visualize the impact:
- You will have no running water.
- You will have no lights, air conditioning, heat pumps or electric appliances.
- You will have no fuel for your automobiles.
- The food in your refrigerator and freezer will decay quickly unless you know how to pressure can it.
- Even if you do, do you have the supplies and alternative heat sources to pressure can in a grid-down scenario?
- Food supplies will be gone within 2-3 days as there will be no fuel for trucks to deliver to stores.
- You will have no Internet and no online access to pay bills.
- ATM’s will not work and the only cash you will have will be what is in your possession at the time of the event.
- Financial markets would likely collapse.
- Virtually all commerce would stop.
- Generators at hospitals would quickly cease operations resulting in widespread death and disease.
All this would occur not if something science fiction happens, but simply as a result of what already happens naturally. We created a marvelous manmade world that allows us to understand many things about how the universe works. Unfortunately, we cannot stop how it works.
“We Can Get Prepared” – The Earth Will Be Fine
The bottom line is this: Earth’s surface and life will generally not be directly affected by a massive CME, but the technology on which today’s modern civilization is absolutely dependent could be devastated if one were to hit Earth head on especially if the magnetic field is in a weak state.
“But we can get prepared for what happens,” Dr. Kuang concludes. “Just like an earthquake, we cannot create them, but if we know when and where they will occur we can take preventive action to reduce or eliminate damages and loss.”
NASA’s Dr. Newmark sums it up in very plain terms. “Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years… CMEs have been hitting Earth for 4.5 billion years. It’s pretty safe to say the earth itself will not care much.”
But humankind will care. The difference is in the technological infrastructure that dominates and sustains human life today. That same innovation can and should be used to protect mankind’s technological society with the understanding of our exposure to the sun’s most powerful threatening hold over our planet… maybe long odds and maybe not, but very real.
Why People Don’t Prepare for CMEs
You would think with the undeniable possibility of such a catastrophic event that more people would take CMEs seriously and prepare for them. Yet, do you know anyone who has? I have to admit that, even though we are very well prepared to enjoy life regardless of whether a CME occurs or not (at least until the zombies come), even I find it almost impossible to fathom. Yes, I know they’ve happened before and I know they will happen again. Yes, I know if the solar storm is powerful enough AND if it is hurled toward the earth, there is nothing we can do to stop it and it will drastically change our way of life. Still…do I really expect it to happen?
And that’s why we don’t think of ourselves at all as “doomsday” preppers. More like sunshine preppers, I suppose, since we have a pretty optimistic outlook.
But…why not take steps to prepare anyway for CMEs and other scenarios if you can do so without too much hardship and inconvenience?
No doubt the power would come back on, but you and your family need to be able to survive until that time.