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Solar storms, defined by NASA as “eruptions of mass and energy from the solar surface, including prominences, flares, sunspots and coronal ejections,” are not a direct threat to us here on Earth’s surface, since our atmosphere serves as a protective shield from the explosions. In fact, most of the time, solar storms go unnoticed on Earth.
However, solar storms have the potential to cripple our power grid and communications technology, and, as a result, bring much of the modern way of life to a standstill. Here’s how:
The most powerful solar storms send coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that contain charged particles out into space. CMEs that strike our atmosphere could cause a disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field, potentially disrupting satellites, interrupting navigation systems and communications systems and taking out power grids for entire regions.
The biggest solar storm in recorded history was the Carrington Event, named for Richard C. Carrington, who observed and recorded the 1859 solar event. It wiped out telegraph machines and sent auroras – normally only seen in places like Alaska and Canada — as far south as Hawaii, Cuba and even Africa.
Another lesser-known solar superstorm occurred in the 20th century, however, and even though it was long before modern technology, it can give us a glimpse at the devastating effect a solar storm could have on our 21st century lifestyle.
On May 13, 1921, astronomers noted a huge sunspot with an estimated width of 94,000 miles and a length of 21,000 miles on the solar surface. Auroras were observed for the next few evenings across much of Europe, in the Eastern United States and in California.
More significantly, most of the East Coast experienced a communication blackout caused by the solar storm. That morning, the entire signal and switching system of the New York Central Railroad shut down due to current charges from the storm. The event also sparked a fire in the control tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue.
A telegraph operator reported that his switchboard ignited, causing an entire building to soon become engulfed in flames. A similar report of a fire came from a telephone station in Sweden that morning, and the solar storm affected telephone, telegraph and cable traffic over most of Europe.
What does this 1921 event mean to us today? Aside from being fascinating historically, it portends the dire results of a modern solar storm. The impact of a storm today would be far more severe, considering our dependence on technology for so many aspects of our lives, including paying bills, buying groceries, sending emails and even pumping gas.
American and European scientists have expressed concern that the plasma cloud from a solar superstorm could wipe out vast electronics networks and technologies, causing unpresented havoc. Without electricity, the entire modern-day financial infrastructure shuts down, as does the delivery system for food.
According to John Kappenman, an engineer at MetaTech Corporation, a California-based science and engineering company, a solar storm on the same level as the so-called Railroad Storm of 1921 would affect 150 million people across North America. Resulting magnetic storm currents also could damage transformers that would affect many others.
In all, losses could exceed $30 billion in lost salaries, spoiled food, business closures and other related effects of a huge solar storm. And those numbers could ratchet up dramatically if outages and other storm-related problems persisted for weeks.
Grid expert and Congressional EMP Commission member Peter Pry said in testimony this summer that a storm on par with the 1921 one “could kill up to 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal collapse” because the grid would be down for so long. That’s more than 280 million people. (Listen to Pry on Off The Grid Radio here.)
Experts agree that we may have only 24 hours warning before a storm collided with Earth. How can we prepare for a disaster? The answer is much the same as you would for any other natural disaster – by stockpiling food, water and other necessities.
In addition, it is wise to keep cash on hand, since banks will be unable to process withdrawals during a massive power outage.
Do you believe America is prepared for a major solar storm? Share your thoughts in the section below: