In 1859, an event unlike anything experienced before by modern man, occurred. A massive Coronal Mass Ejection occurred on the sun sending vast quantities of solar particles on a collision course with Earth. The result of this collision caused severe disruptions with the only major electrical equipment then in existence, the telegraph system. Magnetic observatories recorded disturbances in the Earths magnetic field that were literally off the scale.
Auroras were seen as far south as the Caribbean, gold miners in the Rocky Mountains were awakened by a light so bright they thought it was morning and those in the northeast could read news papers by the light.
Telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America failed and in some cases shocked telegraph operators. Telegraph lines threw sparks, paper in some telegraph offices caught fire and some lines continued to send messages even after the battery power had been removed from the line. The electrical effects were severe but the lack of electrical devices in use at this time allowed society to continue as normal and this disturbance was viewed as nothing more than a curiosity.
Scientists believe events of this size can occur every 500 years and events of a lesser but still destructive magnitude can happen several times per century. Scientists are getting better at predicting space weather but mother nature often times ignores our best forecasting and throws us a curve.
What would happen if a storm of this magnitude were to strike the Earth today? The biggest worry we have is the power grid. Satellites would be affected preventing most communications and financial transactions but if the grid goes down due to transformer blowouts, it could be a long time before we get it back up. The larger transformers 500+ KV in size cost millions of dollars and take 1 to 3 years to get even in normal times. Very few of these are kept in supply and the loss of dozens or hundreds at one time could be a disaster as only a small number are made every year and none are currently made in the U.S.
If many of these large transformers went down, it would take down our high tech society with it. Many of our cars and computers and appliances would probably still work, but how would we run them without power? How would we pump water to cities and pump fuel so trucks and trains could deliver food and medicine? How would our medical system operate without the high tech gadgets we depend on to keep people alive and diagnose them? How would we communicate and conduct financial business without our computers? Yes, we have backup generators but how long will they last before they run out of fuel that we can no longer process, pump and deliver?
This is the nightmare scenario we need to address before it happens. Currently we can detect CMEs about 20 hours before they reach Earth. The current plan is to notify power companies of the danger so they can shut down parts of the grid and protect the transformers before they get burnt out. It’s a plan but I feel the need to ask, is this really the best plan we can come up with? What happens if mother nature throws us a curve and we don’t have time to power down the transformers? A report from the EMP commission stated that it would cost about $60 to $100 million to protect the 300 largest transformers that power the grid and an additional $400 to $600 million to protect an additional 3,000 transformers but our leaders don’t think that would be the best use for our money. A NASA report indicates that within 90 seconds of a Carrington Event reaching Earth, the 300 largest transformers in the U.S. would go down and recovery would take 4 to 10 years and some estimates place the death toll in the tens of millions of people.
If the grid goes down civilized society as it is will disintegrate rapidly due to the lax moral standards we now have as a society. The pictures of Japanese citizens patiently waiting in line to get supplies after the 2011 tsunami is a stark difference from what you could expect in the U.S. As with many potential problems, if the government would only discuss it in public and offer the public some simple preparedness tips and discuss how we as a nation would repair the damage, the public knowledge would help mitigate the damage and aid in recovery operations. Unfortunately, that’s not how we do things in the 21st century.
So how do we know how bad it was in 1859 if we didn’t have electronic devices back then to measure it?
To be maximally geoeffective , ie: to drive a magnetic storm, a CME must
(1) be launched from near the center of the sun onto a trajectory that will cause it to impact Earths magnetic field,
(2) be fast (1000 km/sec + ) and massive, thus producing large kenetic energy and
(3) have a strong magnetic field where orientation is opposite that of Earth.
Solar Energetic Particle events dominated by shock-accelerated particles traveling near the speed of light are channeled along geomagnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere above the poles where they can initiate ozone depleting chemistry in the middle atmosphere. Nitrates produced by SEP bombardment settle out of the atmosphere within weeks and are preserved in polar ice, allowing the magnitude of the SEP to be estimated many years later. This is how we can estimate the magnitude of the Carrington Event and apply it to modern technology.
Some scientists fear that the solar maximum that will peak in 2020 will spawn another CME similar to the Carrington Event causing catastrophic results on Earth (SOURCE). The recent uptick in solar storms may give some credence to our newfound concerns. The problem with a solar event as opposed to a man-made event is the possibility that we could be hit multiple times over the course of months before it diminishes. This could make recovery efforts many times more difficult. It is possible for individuals to prepare for an event like this to limit the hardships but this is something that must be done well in advance. The problem is that the vast majority will not prepare and they will cause this disaster to become a catastrophe if it happens. Those that are not prepared to live through a situation like this face a life threatening situation. Those that are prepared, face the danger posed by the unprepared.
The preparations that you make for this situation are similar to many other disasters and will require similar items and planning. As I always stress, knowledge is the most important thing to have in a disaster and everyone needs to develop a plan that will work best for them. If the grid goes down besides not being able to travel or communicate, banking records could be frozen or destroyed taking your electronic money along with it. In this situation, the only money you may have access to is what you have on hand in cash and even then you may be limited as to what you will be able to buy. The only safe position is to already have supplies on hand. For this type of disaster, there is no such thing as being prepared too early or having too many supplies.
One final item that you need to plan for is the potential for a nuclear incident following a grid down event. The loss of power to maintain coolant can result in a meltdown of reactor fuel and the more serious problem of spent fuel coolant ponds going dry igniting radioactive fires. In this situation you have two choices, evacuate or shelter in place. Evacuation would be difficult at best and sheltering in place would present its own problems. An uncontrolled radioactive fire can spew radiation for decades so each person would need to evaluate the hazard to their location and plan accordingly. A modern day Carrington Event would be nothing short of Armageddon for the people of this planet