Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Stone 382
by Sean Monaghan

A.I. Oh!
by Tom Doyle

Castle of the Slave
by Aliyah Whiteley

Home From Home
by Mark English

Aliens With Candy
by Michael Andre-Driussi

A Cumdumpster Kid
by Rebecca L. Brown

Harmony, Chaos, and the Reign Thereof
by Kyle White

Potential Killer
by Fredrick Obermeyer

Cinderella's Holo-Wand
by Sarina Dorie

Ears, Eyes, Nose ... and Throat
by Jez Patterson


Cargo Cultism
by Eric M. Jones

Coronal Mass Ejection by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Coronal Mass Ejection—

Not Just Another End of the World

By John McCormick

MONDAY, 8:24 A.M.—YOU SIT UPRIGHT in bed feeling something is wrong and it is; your alarm didn’t go off and your 9 a.m. meeting is going to take place without you.

The clock isn’t working but you can tell by the light from the window that it is late. There is no smell of coffee and the bedside light doesn’t come on, so you quickly realize the power is out.

You pick up the phone to call work. No dial tone. You open up your cell phone. The battery is dead.

Dressing quickly, you try to start your car but it, along with every other one on the street, sits dead quiet in the driveway, occasionally with a cursing homeowner standing beside it whacking an inoperative cell phone against a palm.

It really doesn’t matter that your car won’t start because the commuter train isn’t working either; neither are the elevators at work, nor the radios, nor the satellites, nor the computers at The Pentagon, in Paris, or Beijing.

A massive solar storm generated a flood of highly energetic particles that hit the Earth during the night, generating powerful electrical surges in virtually every electric wire and electronic device. Nothing electrical except for flashlights is working any place inside low-Earth orbit.

If you are looking for a wild and improbable potential disaster to worry about, this isn’t one. Unlike volcanoes caused by laser oil drills or a gamma ray burst from a light years distant star, this disaster is not only possible, to a greater or lesser extent it is quite likely to happen. I know, because it already has.

In fact it has happened multiple times in recent memory and, because there were no electronics, there is no easy way to tell how precisely many times it has happened in the past 1,000 years, but evidence shows it happens relatively frequently.

Just how bad will things get? Think back to the last time the power went out at your house.

If it was winter your first thought was probably heat and, depending on your type of kitchen stove, cooking was probably next; no big worry if you use gas, but no microwave, no freezer, no coffee machine.

Good news, the phone, or at least your cell phone, worked, possibly even DSL Internet.

Even better news, help is on the way.

That’s the situation when the outage is due to a storm or even a local failure in the electric transmission and distribution grid.

But what if the outage is a planet-wide event? An electromagnetic pulse triggered by solar activity due to a coronal mass ejection (CME) generated by magnetic fields on the surface of the sun twisting and “shorting out,” causing millions of tons of charged particles to stream toward Earth at nearly the speed of light. (Find a more detailed explanation below.)

Having spent two decades in emergency management, I know just how poorly prepared we are for such an event and as a physicist I know just how likely it is to occur.

Civil Defense is still mainly concerned with nuclear disasters and toxic chemical spills, probably because millions of Geiger counters are available in storage. But you can’t train local volunteers well enough to cope with a biologic or nerve gas attack so the government does what it can to appear prepared.

A lot of our training emphasized the danger of a nuclear air or space burst causing an electromagnetic pulse wiping out all non-hardened electronics, including computers in cars and utility control systems. They really didn’t offer any guidance as to how we could cope because outside assistance would be both available and desperately required.

But a relatively common solar event also causes an electromagnetic pulse that would not just damage computers—it would also overload power grids burning out transformers that take months or years to replace. Wired phone and Internet solarsystems would be hit with thousands of volts of power at relatively high current levels. Fiber-optic cables wouldn’t be damaged but everything that makes them useful would fail.

In the usual power outage caused by a weather event, things quickly get back to normal once power is restored. If damage is widespread, it could take up to several weeks for power to be fully restored everywhere.

But an outage and consequent electrical grid damage triggered by a solar weather event such as the one that occurred about the time of the U. S. Civil War (named for Richard Carrington, the astronomer who spotted the solar flare) or an outage caused by a solar flare just an order of magnitude greater than the one that hit Quebec, Canada, in 1989, would not just shut off the power; it would destroy much of the electrical equipment in your home, business, and government agencies worldwide. Because the grid would have to be completely rebuilt along with replacing most of the equipment run by electricity, some experts suggest that complete recovery from such an event could take up to a decade.

In an extreme case I think it could take longer—considering the likely level of civil and government chaos that would result, perhaps much longer.

Why? Because in all recent disasters there remained a massive infrastructure that could supply the destroyed equipment.

If a large enough solar event hit just right (from our viewpoint, just wrong), the world’s technological infrastructure could be completely incapacitated.

Consider that oil wells would cease to operate along with refineries; natural gas couldn’t be distributed; CNC machine tools would fail because they are run by computer; the motors in old-style machine tools might be burnt out; the fans maintaining clean rooms would have to be built from scratch; the furnaces and design tools for electronic components would be destroyed; little or no communication would be possible beyond shouting distance, etc.

This could be the biggest disaster imaginable that didn’t also instantly result in mass casualties.

Civilization would instantly reset to 1850 without, and this is critical, all the knowledge of how to live in that age, and without the horse, steam, and water power infrastructure that supported civilization some 170 years ago. Starting over would require first rebuilding the world of 1850 but burdened with five billion starving people—essentially everyone not living on a farm. The knowledge would exist but scattered around the world in isolated communities or pockets of experts.

Solar Events—Cause and Effect

Just how likely is this disaster and how bad could it realistically be?

Unlike giant asteroid strikes, which have not occurred over civilized territories in the modern age, speculation as to how bad the results of a major solar flare would be doesn’t require much imagination; we need only look back a few decades to see what a relatively small solar event did in a major metropolitan area.

March 13, 1989, Quebec—Hydro-Quebec, the Montreal region’s 735 kV power system, was knocked out by the sort of solar flare which we see fairly often, costing billions.

The worst recorded solar flare impacting the Earth hit September 1, 1859. Larger events probably occurred earlier in human history and others of the same magnitude happen relatively frequently, but there was no impact on human life as we weren’t using electricity.

The 1859 “Carrington” event was so powerful that the resulting aurora turned the night as bright as day in parts of the northern U.S. and was seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Telegraph service was knocked out, with the power surge in the wires starting fires and injuring telegraphers when the telegraph was the only electrical technology in use..

A 1972 flare disrupted long-distance phone service in Illinois.

July 14, 2000—a flare caused short-circuits in some satellites.

Similar size solar flares occur all the time, some so powerful they overwhelm the instruments that observe them, but if the Earth isn’t in the “target” area there will be no local disruption.

So, as you can see, electrical and electronic damage is caused by solar events all the time.

Our Frenemy the Sun

Unlike other potential disasters, a major solar event will initially kill or injure only a relatively few people (some in hospitals, those using dialysis machines or having implanted heart devices) but all communication, most transportation, food harvesting and processing, drug manufacturing, etc., along with virtually everything needed to rebuild civilization, would be little more than complex piles of junk.

Solar flares and CMEs occur all the time and are related, although the exact relationship between CMEs and solar flares is undetermined.

What is clear is that when a CME or solar flare is aimed toward the Earth it causes powerful magnetic storms most noticeable to the average person as the aurora, but also causing disruptions in radio transmissions and occasionally even damaging satellites.

More powerful events can cause massive power surges in any long conductive wires, such as transmission lines or transformers.

The sun is a complex structure with moving electrical particles and, as anyone familiar with elementary physics knows, moving electric fields generate magnetic fields and vice versa.

The sun itself rotates; in fact, different regions of the sun rotate at different speeds. Charged particles also move from the center outward, and these two processes create incredibly complex and continually changing magnetic fields.

In the visible corona this results in the well-known solar flares. These are streams of charged particles and plasma moving along magnetic loops.

Simply put, when loops twist enough to cross themselves a large mass of particles breaks free and is ejected with very high velocity in a relatively narrow stream.

Right now the sun is in an unexpected quiet time. It should be near solar max but for some reason it is relatively quiet, meaning there are few major flares, sunspots, or CMEs.

The solar activity cycle is fairly regular, lasting about 11 years.

But, as NASA reported on March 1, “Something unexpected is happening on the sun.”

This year, 2013, should be the peak of the cycle, solar max. But flares are infrequent and sunspots are fewer in number than in 2011.

(I observed this myself because I had invested in a solar observatory a few years back, looking forward to the solar max. I recently sold it on eBay because the sun was so quiet. A personal connection with the sunspot cycle, albeit a very minor one!)

Now for the Bad News

As you might suspect, when some long-time cyclical event fails to appear or is weaker than expected, the next peak may be larger than usual; that would bring the total back near the historic “average.”

Although surface solar activity is commonly spoken of as an 11-year cycle, that is simply an average; the historic record shows that the cycle is less than regular, lasting between 9 and 13 years—also, the peak isn’t always the same size.

Even worse, the last two maximums had two peaks about a year apart. If this is happening again, the next solar max will be in 2014. Other estimates place it near the end of 2013 or even in 2015

Because the sun is essentially a ball of plasma, rather than a solid body of any sort, there is only a loose connection between events in different hemispheres. In other words, peak solar activity isn’t simultaneous in the north and south regions.

All in all, with our civilization relying more and more on technology as the limiting growth factor, the U.S. electric grid in poor condition, and life on this planet being ever more reliant on a continuing and growing supply of power, it’s certainly a good thing that there aren’t any other potential complications that could result in more frequent and massive CMEs.

Yep, you guessed it, there is another shoe to drop and it is a gigantic one.

Just as the Earth and other planets have magnetic fields with north and south poles, so does the sun and, guess what? NASA reports that every indication leads scientists to believe that the sun’s magnetic poles are about to swap.

Just what effect such a massive event would have on the frequency and severity of solar storms is not clear, but it could be bad.

Also, the sun’s magnetic field is so gigantic that effects caused by the reversal of poles would extend well beyond the former planet Pluto.

The field moves and therefore already generates a “sheet” of electric charge radiating from the sun’s equator. As you can well imagine, when the sun’s magnetic field completely reverses there will be disruptions in this sheet of electric charge that, because the planets revolve around the sun in the plane of the sun’s equator, will impact the Earth.

This pole reversal is a regular event but, as with the impact of solar flares, we as a civilization have only recently begun to rely on electricity and therefore have become vulnerable to such events.

In other words, this potential disaster is really the only significant risk to civilization that wouldn’t affect us if we weren’t a technological civilization in the first place.

An asteroid strike can wipe out dinosaurs as easily as today’s human population, but solar flares and CMEs on the order of those we regularly encounter would have had no effect on life or civilization until very recently.

Think the situation couldn’t get any more complex? Think again. The Earth’s magnetic poles are also about due to switch.

Fortunately this might not take place for another 500 years or so, but the field is steadily weakening and is the only thing protecting us from deadly solar radiation.

If you want something more to think about, no one actually knows whether the magnetic pole swap taking place on the sun will accelerate changes in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Economic Threat

As I outlined above, a really massive event CME or solar flare just an order of magnitude larger than one that was thoroughly documented in the 19th century could destroy the technological base of the entire world. The only big upside is that a large-scale war would be impossible to mount after such an event and similarly it would be unlikely that a pandemic could spread quickly without air or ocean travel.

But even if the next big solar flare or CME triggered electromagnetic disaster is only relatively localized, it would have enormous financial implications, not to mention our poor record of response to major disasters—for example, Katrina in The Big Easy and Sandy in New Jersey and New York.

Couple this with the still fragile world economy (the big banks continue to pull many of the tricks they were fined for just a few years ago) and gigantic debt in every major country except China and economic disruption could be just as dangerous as a full scale physical disaster.

According to a recent report commissioned by Lloyds (the insurance company), "Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid," a Carrington-level geomagnetic storm occurs periodically, averaging about 150 years between events.

(Just a reminder; the last such event, the one that gave the cycle its name, happened 154 years ago so the next one is now due.)

Solar emissions hitting the Earth of the scale of the event that cost the Canadian government about $12 billion during the nine hours of the 1989 Quebec power outage happen about every 50 years.

Lloyds’ report analyzed the threat and set the cost of greatest potential damage just related to power grid failure in the Atlantic corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City at up to $2.6 billion. The cost and threat are related directly to the number of super high-voltage transformers that would have to be replaced. This could take up to two years because those monster devices take a long time to build and there isn’t a warehouse full of them just waiting for orders.

Check out the report for some details on which locations are most susceptible to damage and what steps are being taken to mitigate the threat.

Bottom Line

The potential for a global disaster caused by the regularly occurring solar storms isn’t something individuals can really do much to prepare for on their own.

The international scale of such a catastrophe would be beyond the ability of most individuals or government agencies to deal with. Fortunately, it is paradoxically not just a threat that is only with us because of our technological civilization. It is also one that can be mitigated through changes to the electric grid and other steps that need to be planned for and implemented.

Because the electric grid in the U.S. is one of the largest and oldest in the world, it is very much in need of massive rebuilding—another infrastructure problem that could be addressed and would reap many economic benefits, but another that is being frustrated by the gridlock in Washington. END

John McCormick has been a rancher, mechanic, radiologic monitor, and an emergency management coordinator. He is a trained physicist, science/technology journalist, and widely-published author with more than 17,000 bylines to his credit. He is a member of The National Press Club and the AAAS. His full bibliography is online.

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