Today, let’s discuss coronal mass ejection, solar storms or solar flares and their effect on the earth today, what we know about the flares of 1859 and 1989. This is part of a series that I am doing called “Largest Natural & Human Disasters.”
Even if I am a big advocate of looking at other smaller scenarios first, on occasion, I have to do a service to the people that read this blog that want to know what the larger disasters could look like. I do believe that all of the disasters in my series are possible, but if they are probable or not is a different story. This one is probable. It happens to a large degree every 70 years or so (give or take a few decades) and to the degree that we have scientists that are worried about our electrical grid.
I could try to sound smart, or I can explain it all just a little bit erroneous to make it easy to understand. I could talk about the magnetosphere or the ionosphere, or I could incorrectly call it the atmosphere for conceptual reasons. I am not trying to be a science teacher here, so if you want to pick at the terms that I choose and tell me how wrong I am, then I will allow your post, and I will call you an idiot because I just told you that I will phrase things for ease of understanding, not for full scientific accuracy, but rest assured that I have done the research to find the correct terms.
So coronal mass ejection (CME) (I will give you the non-textbook definition for simplicity) is just the wind and magnetic fields are released into space from the sun in bursts. It is like a magnetic explosion. These CMEs are often closely associated with the more visible solar flares. When the CME happens in a big burst it presses down on the atmosphere of the earth and the magnetic energy interacts with all of the earths magnetic fields and particles (or ions) in the atmosphere. This is called a geomagnetic storm, or a solar storm. It has to be really big to effect us down below that shell that surrounds us.
When an extremely large one happens, the atmosphere, although it acts as a big magnetic cushion can’t hold back the energy. Magnetic radiation and ions make it through. The issue with this is that when a current carrying conductor is placed into a magnetic field (which is moving), it generates current and voltage. Well, in the form of wires, transformers, and more, we have a massive amount of conductors that just act as antennas and amplifiers that will cause the voltage and amperage to be much higher than their capacity.
What are some possible issues with a CME causing a magnetic “super-storm”?
The government has funded much research on CMEs and flares, but have spent nothing on fixing the problem. I haven’t even told you the worst cascade effect from one that is big enough, but I will get to it in a minute.
The Solar Storm of 1859:
Coronal Mass Ejections usually take 3-4 days to reach earth, but this one only took about 18 hours to travel all the way here. So this guy had some speed and power. It moved like this because it was behind another one. It was a sequence of flares. This was a massive storm that lit up the entire atmosphere as far as the carribean. Teleegraph lines were destroyed and failed. Many operators were shocked from their telegraphs. There were even telegraphs that lost their power supplies, but STILL kept transmitting messages due to the power from the Storm. The sky was lit so bright in the Rocky Mtns. that miners woke up and started cooking breakfast. So, although this sounds cool, what was the problem here? Keep in mind that this one was 10 times more powerful than the solar storm of 1989.
The Solar Storm of 1989:
Let’s visit the results of the 1989 storm. This storm took 3 days to get to earth after the CME, instead of 18 hours. Auroras were seen down to Florida and Texas. Short wave radio communications were interrupted. The ground of the earth actually had current in it in many natural pockets. Electronics were disabled on a weather satellite and on the space shuttle Discovery for the duration of the flare and came back afterwards. Two networks on Quebec’s power grid went down due to breaker trips and transformer explosions that left lots of people without power.
We already know that many systems may and will be lost to a magnet storm from a Coronal Mass Ejection, but we don’t even know to what extent that will occur if we get the Big Papa Super Storm like in 1859, that we are about 25 years overdue for. Back then we didn’t have the instrumentation to measure it, and we didn’t have the large electrical grid that we have today. We didn’t RELY on electricity and electronics like we do today.
There is a great chance that we will lose large less-robust pockets of the grid around the world. I think it will take at a minimum, months to recover from it, but I am guessing more around the year to two year point. Are you ready to be without power for two years? What if you had to move as soon as it happened to a place of safety? Why? Because the electronics that kept the nuclear power plants safe are now down. They may have tripped into a failsafe mode, but if they cannot be kept covered, they will melt down. If the electronics don’t go, we still have to have backup generators to keep all the systems running on them. In order to do this, we need diesel at a constant supply. So when everything has failed and tanked, we are going to be able to give constant flow of diesel fuel… RIGHT! Not that we wont try, but we just logistically can’t.
Compounding issues. Gangs, sanitation, body and mental stressors, and illnesses are all results of the problem, and compounding problems that will make the problem even worse.
When you don’t have money to buy what you need, then learn skills. They will make you more capable and actually more desired in a group setting. Those with the skills will be the ones to survive, because everyone wants them on their team.
As I write tips for your adventures and hear about cool gear, I will let you know all about it!