Solar CMEs are Greatest Earthly Threat
Earth’s next global natural catastrophe won’t be a great quake, or a supervolcano eruption or an asteroid impact. Earth’s greatest world-wide threat is from X-class solar flares firing off volleys of supercharged plasma, like giant celestial supercannons, aimed squarely at Mother Earth.
It’s much closer than you think.
Charged particles fired off by the sun are called CME’s – Coronal Mass Ejections. Last month four strong X-class flares erupted on the sun in 5 days. Another X-class flare (X3) happened just yesterday!
Our only protection from them is luck. None were aimed at earth.
That isn’t always the case. Aimed here, nothing can prevent a giant CME from penetrating earth’s protective magnetic shield, nor can we fully prepare for its devastating effects. You’ll never know when it is coming until it is to late.
A July 2013 Lloyd’s of London study predicts we are on the doorstep of a global CME disaster.
At right is a video clip showing all of October’s solar activity compressed into 20-seconds.
NASA has a fleet of space-based solar observatories recording data every few seconds – 24X7.
They see both sides of the sun with many instruments filtered to specifically selected frequencies covering the full electromagnetic spectrum.
They are used for making space weather forecasts for the near-earth environment. A primary mission is detecting CMEs. CMEs are common solar phenomena.
The best we can do now is watch patterns of sunspots, measure their magnetic flux and infer the chances of dangerous X-class flares as groups slowly drift across the sun.
October had numerous dangerous sunspot groups.
Earth seems to be doing OK so far. According to NASA, the largest X-class flare ever measured in the satellite era was on October 28, 2003. It had an intensity estimated at X45. No one really knows for sure. It burned up the instrument measuring its intensity after it rose above X17.
It’s a logarithmic intensity scale. The flare was over 200 times stronger than the detector it killed could record. Its CME, fortunately, was pointed away from Earth.
What would have happened if it had been pointed directly at us?
The Carrington Event
Around noon on September 1st, 1859 amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was engaged in a time-honored daily London activity. He was counting and sketching sunspots that he carefully recorded in his tattered journal.
Suddenly, he saw a brilliant flash of light. Shocked, he ran next door to fetch a companion to witness the strange event. It lasted less than five minutes.
Little did he know, but Carrington had just ushered in the modern age of solar physics. Carrington witnessed the first, and still the largest, solar X-class flare and CME ever seen by humankind.
His discovery was confirmed by another amateur, Richard Hodgson, who also lived in London and witnessed the event while counting sunspots. Carrington was careful not to communicate with Hodgson before they both separately described their observations. He reasoned it would maximize the scientific value of their accounts.
17.9 hours later global effects appeared.
Strong aurora were so bright that people were fooled into thinking it was sunrise. Aurora were observed as far south as Cuba. People could read newspapers at night by their dazzling kaleidoscopic brilliance.
Electric currents induced by the solar plasma that slammed into earth burned out telegraph lines all over Europe and America and created enough sparks to catch telegraph poles and nearby papers on fire. Telegraph operators suffered electric shocks, but no deaths were reported. Compasses went haywire.
Plasma-induced events happened all over the globe for days afterward.
What would be the modern day effects of a Carrington Event?
A lot has happened in the last 154 years. The biggest being human dependence on electricity. Sensitive electronic devices and delicate computers control everything and are all linked through the Internet and space-based global communications.
Civilization’s great weakness is its satellites and electric power grids. The threat comes not from terrorist hacker attacks, but from a Carrington Event!
A July 2013 study by Lloyd’s of London and AER, “Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid (.pdf)”, list these key findings:
- A Carrington-level event is inevitable
- 20-40 million Americans face power outages lasting from 16 days to 2 years!
- Total repair cost of the U.S. power grid alone is estimated at up to $2.6 trillion!
- Solar storms weaker than Carrington present significant risk to the Atlantic Corridor
- Power grid outage risk increases with each solar cycle
- Carrington Event risk is greatest during peaks of the 11-year sunspot cycle (like now)
$2.6 trillion for the U.S. power grid is just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t include the cost of repair to the rest of the world’s power grids, nor the cost of all the electronic equipment burned up, nor replacing the global system of damaged and destroyed satellites that perform such vital functions as GPS, global communications, and monitoring weather and land use.
In short, a Carrington Event today would disrupt life on earth, probably for a decade or more.
When is the next Carrington Event?
Based on information from historical auroral records, the mid-point estimate for the return period of a Carrington-level is 150 years, with a reasonable range of 100-250 years.
– Lloyd’s of London/AER, July 2013 Study
Lloyd’s believes a Carrington Event is imminent.150 years since 1859 was 4 years ago!
Its assessment is based on recorded CME effects and anecdotal historical reports of auroral activity over time. Lloyd’s believes that Carrington wasn’t unique. They believe that even stronger CMEs have struck earth during recorded history.
Other documented non-Carrington level CME events include:
- Quebec power grid blackout affected 6 million for 9 hours in the winter of 1989
- Anik satellite communications disruption in 1994
- Air Force One, en-route to China, briefly lost communications in 1984
- AT&T long-distance phone service knocked offline in August 1972
- GPS navigation knocked offline for 10 minutes in December 2005
- Allied radar disruption in 1942
- Numerous short-term power grid CME-induced outages
- Satellites destroyed, damaged, or rendered inoperable for hours or days, or had orbits altered
- World-wide telephone and telegraph service disruption many times in the last 150 years
The Quebec blackout took just 90 seconds after induced underground electric currents overloaded and burned up giant grounded transformers. Other transformers in New Jersey were also burned up in the same 1989 event.
None of these events were anticipated. Between the CME blast and its arrival at Earth no protective measures were taken.
Another Carrington Event will happen. It’s inevitable. When it does it will have catastrophic global effects altering life as we know it on Earth for a generation.
The good news is that, unknown to Lloyd’s of London, a Carrington Event is not imminent.
Sunspot magnetic field strength, the engine behind CMEs, has been getting weaker for 30 years. It’s becoming so weak that sunspots may not even be able to form in the next 10-15 years. The first forecasted monthly averaged sunspot peak for the next cycle at solar max is under 10 spots!!
That only means that the next Carrington will be delayed.
A solar hiatus from sunspot activity for the next 20 years or so will produce more complacency and lack of preparation while millions more new vulnerable systems are installed.
Delaying Carrington 50 years is still a blink in time to wait for a world-wide catastrophe.
Carrington Events could happen hundreds or thousands of times before the Yellowstone Supervolcano blows or the next celestial rock slams into Earth.
Posted on Nov 6, 2013, in Business, Climate, climate change, economics, Energy, environment, nature, news, Opinion, Politics, science, space, Sun, sunspot report, sunspots, technology, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.