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« Little D day | Main | Open book thread: In memoriam »

March 27, 2009

Eve of Destruction: Coronal Mass Ejection

Solarfilament One of the things that I want to see before I die is the Aurora Borealis (or its Antarctic equivalent, the Aurora Australis). But if the folks at NASA and the New Scientist are correct, seeing them may be the last thing I do, at least before my and everyone else's world falls apart.

Here's the scenario:

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event - a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

To understand how and why millions of us are going to die, first a primer: however peaceful and happy the Sun looks from 93 miles away, it is, as your science teachers told you, a giant ball of burning gas that ejects billions of tons of electrically charged particles every few hours, a.k.a. the solar wind.

The best-case scenario: every day about 1000 tons of these particles reach Earth, where most of them are deflected by our blessed magnetic field (magnetosphere) and "dragged through the atmosphere towards the poles." There, the particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen to produce the green and red lights of the aurora.

(Note, I said "most," not all. Some of the particles do get through. There's no end of speculation about their effects: everything from dropped cell phone calls to cancer to the genetic mutations that drive evolution has been linked by someone to these particles.)

The worse-case scenario is an especially vigorous bombardment that can play havoc with telecommunications and utilities, such as what happened on March 13, 1989 in Quebec:

On the evening of Monday, March 12 the vast cloud of solar plasma (a gas of electrically charged particles) finally struck Earth's magnetic field. The violence of this "geomagnetic storm" caused spectacular "northern lights" that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. The magnetic disturbance was incredibly intense. It actually created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power.

It wasn't only Quebec: "In space, some satellites actually tumbled out of control for several hours. NASA's TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded over 250 anomalies as high-energy particles invaded the satellite's sensitive electronics."

Then there's the worst-case scenario that has the folks at NASA and the New Scientist concerned:a coronal mass ejection on the order of the Carrington Event slams into the magnetosphere and compresses the sucker "like it was a balloon."

In 1859, the result was auroras that were visible at the Equator. This time, our technology creates a  potentially lethal vulnerability: the "rapid change of the direction and flux density of the magnetic field at Earth's surface" would "induce strong currents." Within 90 seconds, these "strong currents" would cut off the power to 130 million Americans and countless more people throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Then it gets bad: 

Anyone living in a high-rise apartment, where water has to be pumped to reach them, would be cut off straight away. For the rest, drinking water will still come through the taps for maybe half a day. With no electricity to pump water from reservoirs, there is no more after that.

There is simply no electrically powered transport: no trains, underground or overground. Our just-in-time culture for delivery networks may represent the pinnacle of efficiency, but it means that supermarket shelves would empty very quickly - delivery trucks could only keep running until their tanks ran out of fuel, and there is no electricity to pump any more from the underground tanks at filling stations.

Back-up generators would run at pivotal sites - but only until their fuel ran out. For hospitals, that would mean about 72 hours of running a bare-bones, essential care only, service. After that, no more modern health care.

How long would this go on? At least months, probably more like years.That's because the transformers melted by the "strong current" can "cannot be repaired, only replaced." After we use up the few spares, it will take 12 months to build the rest we need.

In the meantime, without "power for heating, cooling or refrigeration systems, people could begin to die within days." It gets even worse: In a case of you'll miss us when we're gone, "lose power to New Jersey, for instance, and you have lost a major centre of production of pharmaceuticals for the entire US." Take into account the one million Americans with diabetes who depend on perishable insulin, and that "millions of dead" figure no longer seems like an exaggeration.

As scary as this is, it's even more frustrating. Why? Because unlike a wandering black hole, gamma ray burst, or a super-volcano, it's preventable. No, we can't keep the Sun from hurling a Carrington at us but, with some preparation, we can minimize the damage.

But we're not doing it: the satellite we depend on to warn us is "operating well beyond its planned lifespan," which is just as well since its "onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be" and, in any case, it wasn't built to withstand a Carrington-like event. And, of course, we don't have the spare parts we are going to need.

Why? Because we are governed by idiots.* (Or as Scooby-Doo would put it: "grass crowns."*) They're idiots when they mock volcano-monitoring (oops!) and they are idiots when they talk about "climate change" as if Earth's climate were naturally stable. They are idiots when they are prepared to spend trillions to prop up the "industry" that created our current crisis, while not stopping to consider that a Carrington-like event would render their efforts so beyond moot that you would need the Hubble just to see moot from here. 

Our best hope, as Dave the Swede (not his real name) has suggested, is that the Sun really is entering a Dalton or even Maunder-type minimum. This would reduce the chances of a Carrington-type event, albeit at the price of an increased chance of dying from the cold and the resulting crop failures. Like I said: idiots.

"Destruction" score: what do you say, guys? I'm inclined towards 3/10. "Eve" score: at this point, 7/10. It's gonna happen and our leaders are idiots.

It's all madness, complete madness. All that's left is to embrace another, more joyous, kind of complete madness or as (I think) it's put in Hindi, Deewangi, Deewangi. Rani, Kajol, Shahrukh, take me away.

*Dave the Swede said it was okay to say this. Really.

(Image © KN4LF.com)

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Comments

Gina Dalfonzo

The world will go kaput on my parents' 46th anniversary? Bummer.

(Yeah, I know, speculation. I'm just being silly.)

I never thought I'd say this, but "Knowing" is actually starting to look better to me. At least in that version, things happen quickly instead of dragging on for ages.

Jason Taylor

If we provided sufficient funds for every contingency there wouldn't be sufficient funds. As Frederick the Great pointed out, if you defend everywhere,you defend nowhere.

In any case doing something about the sun is, more or less beyond our capability and therefore to some degree beyond our worry range.

By the way, you could just sum up this whole series and say "death". That, at least is one catastrophe that we can be fairly certain will take place.

Though apparently some differ from me on that:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryogenic_freezing

labrialumn

We are in an extended solar minimum that resembles the Maunder Minimum or the Little Ice Age in the absence of sunspots.

If and when the next solar cycle starts up, it will be several years before there should be any significant CME events.

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