a Coronal Mass Ejection End Civilization?
Asteroid impacts and super volcano eruptions have
been in the news the past few years as events that send us back
into the Dark Ages, but the real threat might be something you
may have never even heard of: a Coronal Mass Ejection.
Fred was sitting and reading his evening paper
in his North Philadelphia home when the lights went out. A quick
glance outside confirmed it wasn't just his house, but the whole
neighborhood. This was odd as the sky was clear with no sign
of bad weather. Then Fred stepped outside and saw it: The upper
atmosphere was lit with a shimmering curtain of red light. Well,
at least they would have something interesting to look at until
the power returned.
On September 1, 1859, British astronomer Richard
Carrington was in his observatory. He had set up his telescope
to observe the sun by having it project an image onto a piece
of white paper. As Carrington watched, he saw something he had
never seen before: over a five minute period several blobs of
blindingly-white light appeared on the paper, then faded. Carrington
had seen solar flares before, but nothing like these. The astronomer
sketched what he had seen onto the paper, puzzled by what it
A day later he found out. The night skies overhead
lit up with vivid displays of red, blue, and green auroras.
Instead of the northern lights just being visible in the northern
latitudes, they appeared as far south as Hawaii. In New York
they lit the sky so bright that at midnight a newspaper could
be read outside.
Carrington's sketch of the odd, white solar flare of 1859.
What Carrington had observed was the largest recorded
coronal mass ejection (CME) in history: billions of tons of
plasma being shot out from the sun towards earth. Normally,
when clouds of plasma like this hit the earth's magnetic field,
they follow the field lines down into the polar regions where
the plasma collides with Earth's upper atmosphere and creates
the aurora borealis in the north and the aurora australis
in the south. Usually these displays are limited to just the
polar regions; however, the CME of 1859 was so strong that it
drove the Northern lights far, far to the south.
A large CME can also cause Earth's magnetic field
to fluctuate. This, in turn, can induce electrical currents
in any object on the planet that can conduct electricity. This
effect is called geomagnetically induced current or GIC,
for short. In 1859 the geomagnetic storm caused by the CME was
so powerful that telegraph operators found that they no longer
needed to connect batteries to their lines as the GIC had given
the lines enough energy to power the system alone. Other operators
suffered shocks from the induced current or even found the paper
the telegraph machines used was being set on fire by electrical
The fluctuation of the magnetic field also drove
compasses crazy for a few days, making navigation difficult.
Despite all the excitement at the time, the Carrington
Event, as we call it today, didn't really have any lasting impact
on the world. As soon as the CME passed by Earth, the compasses
went back to normal and the telegraph stations fixed whatever
minor damages they'd experienced and started transmitting messages
again. And on the plus side, Carrington's observation of the
flare, immediately followed by the brilliant night-time displays,
helped scientists connect the two events together to give us
a better understanding of how the northern and southern lights
What would happen, however, if a Carrington-like
event were to occur again in modern times in a world highly-dependent
on electrical systems? Would everything be back to normal in
just a couple days? Or would there be more serious consequences?
CME Cause Nuclear Meltdowns?
modern nuclear power plants continue to produce heat for
months after they shut down. So much heat, in fact, that
unless the coolant is continually run through the reactor,
the nuclear pile can melt down, leading to deadly radiation
contamination of the air and ground water. This is what
happened to the Fukushima reactor complex in Japan when
a tsunami hit it, shutting down the reactors and flooding
the emergency generators that were supposed to keep the
plant cool. If a geomagnetic storm forced a nuclear plant
off-line and off the power grid for any extended length
of time, its emergency backup generators would run out
of fuel and a meltdown could result. As the damage from
a geomagnetic storm could be widespread, dozens of nuclear
power stations might find themselves in this catastrophic
Fred's radio was silent. The batteries worked
fine, but it seemed like there were no stations on the air.
His cell phone didn't work, either. After twenty-four hours
without communications, rumors started floating through the
neighborhood: The power would not be coming back. Not for at
least six months to a year. Fred headed to the local hardware
store to see if he could buy a generator. the store was mobbed
and there were fights breaking out over who would get the last
of the portable power units.
In 2013 Lloyd's of London, the insurance brokers,
tried to assess the damages that a Carrington Event would have
on modern electrical and communications systems should one occur
today. In the worst case scenario that they came up with, there
was a staggering figure of 2.6 trillion dollars in damages.
They believed that "such an event today would affect between
20-40 million people in the US with power cuts lasting from
several weeks to 1-2 years." Our modern world is much more dependent
on electricity than it was in 1859 both to power our machines
and run our communications.
Our modern homes use electricity to keep them
cool in the summer and warm in the winter (even gas or oil
heating systems require electrical controls and fans to circulate
the air). We keep our food electrically refrigerated at both
our homes and in commercial establishments. Often fresh water
comes to our homes from water towers, but it has to be pumped
by electricity up into those towers in the first place. At
service stations gas and diesel for our vehicles are pumped
out of storage tanks by electrical motors.
So our day to day lives are highly dependent on
our complex electrical power grid. While a lot of electronic
systems and devices could be damaged by severe GICs from a geomagnetic
storm, the electrical grid, however,is probably most vulnerable
of these to a failure in the case of a Carrington-like event.
Just as in 1859 when the telegraph wires got charged
by GIC, modern power lines can find themselves overloaded during
a CME geomagnetic storm. This can, in turn, overload transformers
connected to those lines, causing them to overheat and even
burst into flame. Most of these larger transformers connected
to high power lines would not be easily replaced if they were
damaged. They are specially designed for their roles in the
power system and it can take longer than a year to build a new
one and get it installed. Now when one of these large transformers
malfunctions by itself, it isn't a huge problem for a utility.
They can shift some of the work to other transformers. But suppose
a Carrington event were to put all the large transformers out
of service at a utility? Customers might not see electrical
power restored to their homes and businesses for months or even
The United States has recently faced a few major
problems with its power grid. In August of 2005 Hurricane
Katrina knocked out power for about 2.6 million people in
the southern United States. In October of 2012 Hurricane Sandy
came ashore along the coast of New Jersey and over 8 million
people lost power in the Northeastern states. In both cases
even with utility crews coming from across the country to
assist local workers with getting power restored some customers
were without power for months.
A large CME like the Carrington event might occur
nationwide or even world-wide, spreading restoration crews extremely
thin. This would greatly delay repairs and create a gigantic
shortage of replacement parts.
Fred had never realized how much he depended
on electrical power from the utilities. Everybody needed their
own portable generator and there just wasn't enough of them
to go around. Plus, getting gas or diesel to fuel them was almost
impossible. After a week and a half the food shortages were
serious and there had been a riot downtown. Fred feared looters
would come to his house. Not that he had any food there for
them to take…
huge sun flare sends a CME into space. (NASA)
Fears of a power outage caused by a CME aren't
just theoretical, either. In 1989 a strong geomagnetic storm
hit North America. The power system in Quebec, Canada, was
overwhelmed in less than a minute and the province was plunged
into a blackout that lasted 9 hours and affected six million
people. At the same time in New Jersey, USA, the power system
teetered on collapse after a large transformer succumbed to
a GIC. It was only saved at the last moment because the utility
was able to import electricity from surrounding power grids.
The 1989 storm that caused all this trouble, however, was
just 1/3 of the strength of the Carrington Event.
Despite the problems in 1989 and the realization
that earthy power lines could be damaged by celestial events,
not much was done to improve the situation. No regulations
were added requiring utilities to harden their facilities
against a geomagnetic storm. In fact, the whole system was
made more vulnerable by adding lines and making the grids
This makes what happened on July 23, 2012, extremely
frightening: An immense solar flare on the sun resulted in a
CME at least as large as the Carrington Event being shot out
and directly through Earth's orbit. The planet was only saved
because it had moved past that section of its orbit a few days
before. A very, very, near miss. According to Daniel Baker of
the University of Colorado who worked on a study for NASA about
the incident, "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the
pieces." He also added, "I have come away from our recent studies
more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were
incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it
did," says Baker. "If the eruption had occurred only one week
earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire."
What's more, a recent study by Pete Riley of Predictive
Science Inc, estimated that the chances of a Carrington-like
event hitting Earth head on is a sobering 12% over the next
CME could take down power girds around the world for
over a year.
Unfortunately, governments have continued to move
slowly to handle this threat. NASA has a project underway, Solar
Shield, that would detect an Earthbound CME and predict where
it might do the most damage. (It was one of NASA's satellites
for this project, STEREO-A, that alerted scientists to the 2012
event). With this information, power utilities could shut down
vulnerable equipment until the damaging GIC had passed. This
would result in a blackout for customers, but only one that
would last a few hours, not months or years. Other agencies
are looking into how to make wiring changes to the electrical
systems to harden them against GICs.
The question is whether these protections will
be effective and in position by the next Carrington Event.
As the events of July 2012 show us, it's not a
question of if we will be hit by a CME, but when.
It's six months after the power has failed
and Fred and his family find themselves along with thousands
of others in a government shelter. Food is getting more and
more scarce. There is no sign of electricity in Philadelphia,
though some of the cities in the western United States have
gotten their power back. Government workers come by every few
days checking radiation levels. Without emergency power, the
Limerick Nuclear generating station in Pottstown has had a meltdown
and much of the land northwest of the city is now inhabitable.
Fred realizes that even if the power comes back in a few months,
his world will never be the same.
A Partial Bibliography
Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012 by Dr.
Tony Phillips, NASA Science News, http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/23jul_superstorm/
Solar Shield--Protecting the North American Power Grid
by Dr. Tony Phillips, NASA Science News, http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2010/26oct_solarshield/
A Perfect Storm of Planetary Proportions By John Kappenman,
IEEE Specturm, January 2012, http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/the-smarter-grid/a-perfect-storm-of-planetary-proportions/0
What if a solar super-storm hit? By Ashley Dale, Physics
World, August 2014,http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/2014/aug/7/what-if-a-solar-super-storm-hit
Copyright Lee Krystek
2014. All Rights Reserved.