Saturday Survival Scenario: The Perfect Solar Storm

March 17, 2013 by

Aurora Over Colorado March 17, 2013 Photo Credit: Jimmy Westlake

Aurora Over Colorado March 17, 2013
Photo Credit: Jimmy Westlake

Saturday night as you prepare for bed you notice a striking glow from outside your bedroom window. Looking outside you're pleasantly surprised by a brilliant yet gently shifting prism of colors lighting the sky - an aurora borealis.

Interesting how far south the "northern lights" are appearing lately. That's twice this week.

Turning to the alarm clock next to your bed, you turn on its radio to check for any news about the latest aurora. But all you get is static as you try to tune in any station. Same result with your TV. Giving up, you watch the ongoing light show a bit longer before retiring for the night.

The next morning you awake to your normal routine but turn on the television news while fixing breakfast. A bit of static still lingers through the broadcast, but the Sunday morning newscast appears to have a NASA scientist and a power company representative on with their regular talking head discussing the large solar flare that caused last night's light show.

The NASA scientist bluntly states that satellite communications and GPS services are expected to be knocked out within hours. When they'll be back online is anyone's guess, but likely years before the full satellite complement would be repaired or replaced. He also expresses deep concern over possible damage to the national electric grid that could also take months or longer to repair.

Turning to the power company representative for a response, the TV talking head appears relieved by assurances that the power company has everything under control. The 18-hour advance notice NASA's satellites provided of the solar storm's pending CME arrival means they'll be able to mitigate damage and expect "business as usual" again for almost everyone by tomorrow.

You have a choice now. Go about your day as usual. Or take a different action.

Shortly before sunset the power goes out. It doesn't come back on.

What did you do? What would you do?

Background on the Perfect Solar Storm Survival Scenario

An aurora borealis, commonly called the "northern lights," is caused by the impact of energetically charged particles from the Sun into the Earth's atmosphere. (Equivalent "southern lights" are called aurora astralis, but for simplicity I'll stick with the northern side of things here.)

While the Earth is constantly buffeted by the solar wind, large coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, can dramatically increase the impact by amplifying the speed and intensity of the incoming particles. The stronger the impact, the further from the magnetic pole you may see an aurora.

For example, as I wrap up this article (a tad late on Sunday - sorry - but we'll keep the name "Saturday Survival Scenario anyhow!) the Earth continues to experience an impact from a moderate CME that hit the Earth last night. This CME boosted the  normal solar wind speed from 300km/s to over 700km/s. Northern lights from this solar storm were seen as far south as Colorado early this morning.

The solar storm survival scenario described above follows a pattern that occurred during the largest solar storm on record, the Carrington Event of 1859. This event reportedly sparked auroras as far south as Hawaii and the Caribbean.

But the real story wasn't the pretty skies. It was the electrical impact on Earth. Amplified solar wind during a strong solar storm can literally peel away the magnetic field lines on Earth and cause electrical charges to build up in conductive material on Earth - particularly in long distance wiring.

In the 1850s, the only long conductive lines were telegraph wires. Yet the Carrington Event's impact was so strong that it electrified telegraph lines across Europe and North America, sparking fires and causing electric shock to some telegraph operators. In fact, some telegraph operators disconnected their telegraph's batteries and used the current induced in the telegraph lines to communicate during the solar storm.

Today, nearly our entire planet is covered in long distance transmission lines. Geomagnetically induced currents from a much smaller CME than the  Carrington Event damaged a large transformer in Canada in 1989. This relatively small event caused a nine-hour blackout affecting six million people.

Why Was the Carrington Event So Powerful?

Thanks to the bright solar flare recorded by British astronomer Richard Carrington, scientists believe the the Carrington Event's CME arrived on Earth in less than 18 hours - much faster than the typical three to four days. This allowed the solar particles in the CME to hit the Earth with even more force due to its high speed.

Why did it travel so fast? According to a Baltimore newspaper at the time, another aurora borealis had been seen just four days earlier. The CME causing the earlier northern lights would have cleared away much of the ambient solar plasma between the Sun and Earth that normally slows a CME's passage.

In essence,  the first CME opened up an expressway lane in the solar wind for the huge second flare to hit even Earth faster - and harder - than usual. This is why I included two sets of northern lights in the survival scenario above.

But be forewarned. While the Carrington Event is thought by scientists to be a solar flare and CME of a strength typically seen only once in 100 to 500 years (scientists aren't exactly sure), two key points remain:

1) It has already been over 150 years since the Carrington Event.

2) As the Canadian blackout showed, it doesn't take anywhere near the strength of a Carrington Event to have a potentially devastating impact on our electrical grid and society.

Would You Survive a Major Solar Storm?

Outside of possibly witnessing a beautiful lightshow in the sky, you won't feel a thing from a solar flare or CME. It's the effect on electronics that you'll notice.

Our nation's power grid has not been hardened to withstand the effects of this type of event to this day - despite an estimated cost of hardening our entire grid of about one billion dollars. That's a lot of money, but only half what the single Canadian blackout cost their economy in 9 hours.

That was ONE transformer. A Carrington Event strength scenario could potentially damage or destroy every online transformer in the electrical grid. This would take months or years to recover from - if ever.

Power company officials appear confident they can prevent catastrophe by taking systems offline before the CME arrives. Others aren't so sure they would be successful. Of course, a nuclear EMP could occur with little or no warning with the same effect.

But for the sake of today's survival scenario, let's assume you have 12-24 hours notice to get prepared.

What would you do first?

I clearly remember my first real-life "action event" related to an incoming CME. Don't become Chicken Little like I did. (It pays to learn more about what you're prepping for too!)

Instead, use this opportunity to honestly assess where you are now. Discover your biggest weaknesses ahead of time so you can be prepared.

Because prepping is all about peace of mind.

8/1/2013 UPDATE

Earth JUST MISSED a Carrington-class EMP event in July.

Are you ready for TOTAL LIGHTS OUT?