Many homesteaders have heard of the Carrington Event of 1859.
This massive solar storm struck the very early wired telegraph grid, and was so intense that in some places, telegraph operators reported they could send messages even with their batteries disconnected. The event produced auroras that were seen close to the equator and illuminated the night sky so bright that Americans could read their newspapers on their porch.
This historical storm that pummeled the Earth was caused by a coronal mass ejection striking the magnetosphere, and remains to this day one of the largest electromagnetic storms on record.
Of course, in 1859, unless you were a telegraph operator getting zapped by poorly grounded or isolated instruments, or were dependent on a message getting through in a hurry, an electromagnetic storm wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was more of a cultural novelty, as people who had never seen the Northern Lights in the sky got to enjoy the amazing show caused by the disturbance in the upper atmosphere.
But 2016 isn’t 1859, and the grid is far more complicated than it was during pre-Civil War days. Today, a solar storm the size of the Carrington Event could destroy transformers and other key parts of the power grid, knock out satellite communications, and take out ground-based communications. Radio and other wireless transmissions like cellphones could be disrupted, and transmitting facilities damaged. According to a 2013 study by insurer Lloyd’s of London, a Carrington-sized storm is “almost inevitable” in the future, simply because one occurs about every 150 years. The study found that:
- Blackouts would last anywhere from 16 days to 1-2 years, depending on if spare parts for the grid are accessible. If “new transformers need to be ordered, the lead-time is likely to be a minimum of five months,” Lloyd’s found. This is because transformers are custom-made.
- The highest-risk areas would be “along the Atlantic corridor between Washington D.C. and New York City.” Other high-risk regions include Midwest states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, and the Gulf Coast.
- The total economic loss would be as much as $2 trillion.
Lloyd’s even created a map, showing the states where the storm would have the greatest impact and the least impact (see picture).
“Carrington-level geomagnetic storm simulations can be created using statistical models of past storms or simulations of the interaction between extreme solar wind conditions and the geomagnetic field,” the study found. “Simulated magnetic field time-series are then combined with the local ground conductivity structure to derive the surface electric fields.”
Without electricity, gas pumps don’t work and trucks cannot make deliveries. In other words, the nation’s supply line comes to a halt. Major banking centers are in some of the most vulnerable regions, and we can expect economic upheaval until things are normalized.
According to Lloyd’s, if you don’t live in an area most likely to be affected by such an event, you might be OK. Other experts, though, caution that a Carrington-type event would impact the entire country and spark a nationwide blackout, due to the interconnected nature of the grid.
If a major solar storm is about to strike and you live in an area that will be badly impacted, the first thing you should do is make sure you have as much cash on hand as possible. Credit cards and the like are mostly useless when the power goes out. Fuel and water may become scarce, as pumps cease to operate and temporary disruptions of supply occur. Without a Faraday cage, our own personal electronics may be damaged or destroyed, and it’s likely you will have no phone service. Skilled amateur radio operators may be able to communicate during a storm, and certainly will have the most functioning mode of communication after the fact, but as in any emergency a lot of their effort will be directed toward helping first responders and aid workers until communication starts returning.
If you are not already prepared to live off the gird with food, water, your own radio gear, maybe a small Faraday cage, and cash or gold and silver on hand, then now is the time to start. Short of a massive overhaul of the most vulnerable parts of the grid, odds are that the next Carrington-level event will cause massive disruptions that will ripple through the entire globe. Not only do you need to start preparing now, but you need to have a plan to withdraw to a safer area in case of civil unrest. Many major Eastern population centers are already high crime areas and often have tough gun control laws that effectively disarm the law-abiding population. The 1-2 year recovery for full grid capacity that is predicted in some areas could turn into a 1-2 year-long crime spree as tensions rise and the will to riot increases in the face of limited services.
We no longer live in the barely wired world of 1859. Life was hard back then, but a disruption of the telegraph system for a few days hardly mattered. Today, the same event will drive us back to the 1800s, and most Americans simply cannot handle that. Can you?
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