This article is the second part in a three-part series. You can find Part 1 here.
A Beautiful Disaster
After this aurora event, a journalist in Baltimore, Maryland, wrote, “The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o’clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.”
A miner in Australia wrote, “Lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith, but always becoming a rich purple when reaching there, and always curling round, leaving a clear strip of sky, which may be described as four fingers held at arm’s length.”
While I haven’t seen anything as beautiful as the Carrington Event, I was around for several strong solar storms that pushed the Northern Lights a lot further south than usual. For myself, the one that was the most visible was the Bastille Day Solar Storm of 2000. It lit up the skies north of El Paso with a colorful display that we’ve never seen since.
But all of this beauty comes at a cost. In 1859, telegraph operators bore the brunt of it. A major solar storm can’t directly hurt people or animals because we’re just too small to collect up much energy, but the long, long wires that had been strung across continents were a good match for the wavelengths of the solar energy that had built up in the magnetic fields. A number of American and European operators suffered electric shocks as the unexpected electricity built up in the wires. Telegraph poles threw sparks. Even with batteries and power supplies disconnected, some telegraph operators were able to continue sending messages to each other using the power that was spontaneously on the wires.
However, the world has changed a lot since 1859. Instead of just a few telegraph wires, now we’ve got a large and sophisticated network of power, telephone, internet, and cable TV wires globally. We haven’t seen anything as bad as the Carrington Event since, but much smaller storms have caused real headaches. The storm I saw in 2000 damaged a number of power transformers, causing some minor power outages. It also damaged a number of research and telecommunications satellites, and taught space researchers how to make newer spacecraft less susceptible to damage.
Other storms have caused larger problems since 1859. Before we got too high tech, a number of them in the late 19th and early 20th century have messed up telegraph networks and started fires. A 1960 storm taught us that radio communication can be severely disrupted by solar storms (especially on the HF or “shortwave” bands). A 1972 storm damaged power grids, destroyed at least one satellite in space, and detonated a bunch of the US Navy’s sea mines near Vietnam.
Perhaps the worst storm in recent decades was the 1989 storm that collapsed an entire power grid in Quebec for 9 hours, jammed radio signals, and created enough aurora for people to wonder if some sort of Soviet attack was underway (this was during the Cold War). This was rivaled by a series of storms in 2003, collectively known as the Halloween Solar Storms. In the 2003, power grids as far from the action as Africa had to be repaired.
That Time We Missed This Global Megadisaster By Just Over A Week
A repeat of the Carrington Event almost happened in 2012. On July 23rd of that year, a coronal mass ejection of similar strength to the storm in 1859 erupted from the sun and shot past Earth’s orbit. Had this occurred only 9 days earlier, Earth would have suffered a direct hit that would have devastated modern electrical and telecommunications infrastructure. Currents on the long wires would have damaged almost anything plugged in to power grids, phone lines, or other wired internet connections, and most surge protection devices wouldn’t prevent this.
This is one of those situations where the impacts of this are actually worse than they sound. In the worst-case scenario (a 2012-sized flare), transformer equipment over most of the grid would be destroyed, with the effects more pronounced in areas with less conductive ground. In lucky places, the power may only blink and be flaky for several days (but still fry electronics that are plugged in). In less lucky places, the power could be out for weeks, months, or years while new transformers are made.
If hundreds of the largest transformers are lost, the time to restoring the grid would be between 4 and 10 years. Individual transformers take 15 months to produce, and must be moved by ship from the facilities in China that produce them, and this is on top of concerns about purchasing such vital equipment from Chinese companies. Efforts are now underway to increase power equipment production in the United States, but that still won’t make the problem of replacing hundreds of them at the same time much faster. If the economic chaos is bad enough after the loss of power to hundreds of millions of customers, the process of building replacements could be severely hampered or stopped entirely, even in countries with domestic production.
But This Is Unlikely To Happen, Right?
At best, the chance of this happening is around 1.6% in any given 10-year period. At worst, the odds are about 12%, or 1 in 8, to have a major solar storm like this in a given decade. Chances are higher toward the most active parts of a solar cycle, and that cycle is set to peak sometime in 2025, so chances are only increasing for the next several years.
Unless you’re not going to live much longer, the chances if this happening in your lifetime (a number of decades, hopefully) are likely more risky than Russian Roulette.
This Isn’t The Only Major Threat To Power Availability
Now that I’ve hopefully got your attention about the threat this poses, keep in mind that this isn’t the only thing that could knock out your power for longer than you could reasonably store fuel. EMP from a high altitude nuclear attack would have similar effects, but likely with more widespread electronic damage in the target area (but it still wouldn’t fry most things not plugged in). Cyber attacks and other intentional sabotage of power grids could also require years to repair fully.
In other words, if your goal is to prepare for emergencies, you’re only really minimally prepared with a gas generator and some jerrycans. Your family deserves better.
In Part 3, I’ll discuss ways that clean technologies can be used to protect against these threats and provide your family with power for the duration of long-term power outages.
Featured Image: Sketch of the solar superflare in 1859 by Richard Carrington. Public Domain.
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