How to survive a CME?

Jul 21, 2021

 

As our Sun starts to come out of Solar Minimum and heads into cycle 25 towards Solar Maximum our risk of increased solar activity increases also [6].  The sun cycles about every 11 years between Solar Minimum and Maximum, so Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) are not a new thing.  During Solar Maximum solar flares and CMEs happen frequently.  We are already seeing eruptions from the sun, luckily heading away from the Earth.

 A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is a cloud of plasma and electromagnetic fields that has erupted from the sun and ejected into space, sometimes in the direction of Earth.  The time it takes for a CME to reach the Earth can range from 15-18 hours (quick travelling CME) to several days (slow travelling CME) [7].  If the CME hits Earth, it can create a geomagnetic storm such as the Carrington Event 1859.  The geomagnetic storm can cause problems with power grids, communications systems, satellites, global position systems (GPS) and magnetic devices.

 

Examples of damage caused by CMEs in history?

Carrington Event 1-2 September 1859. 

During solar cycle 10, a large CME took 17.6 hours to travel from the Sun to Earth.  Named after the astronomer who saw it, Richard Carrington.  This event saw-

  • Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) being seen down near the Caribbean
  • Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) being seen up near Queensland, Australia.
  • Telegraph systems around the world either failed or had communication problems
  • (Telegraph, the phone/communication system of the time with wires running across the country connect switchboards run by human operators.  Also used to send Telegrams (old-style texting). For the modern generation).

 New York Railroad geomagnetic storm 12 May 1921.

  • Telegraph exchanges at various locations around the planet caught fire from the electrical currents being generated by the electromagnetic fields affecting the lines causing surges in the systems.
  • The railroad control tower in New York’s Grand Central Station cause fire.
  •  Telegraph lines across the planet from Australia, Brazil, Europe and the USA had problems with electromagnetic surges overheating the lines. [5]
  • Auroras Borealis was seen as far south as Texas USA
  • Red auroras were seen at the Equator, Samoa and Tonga [5]

 Quebec Canada geomagnetic storm 13 March 1989

A CME erupted from the Sun on March the 10th 1989, hitting on the evening of the 12th of March.  The effect of this geomagnetic storm was widespread across Canada and parts of the USA.

  • This created a geomagnetic storm that brought the Aurora Borealis down as far as Cuba. [2]
  • Quebec’s had a power grid with about a 12-hour power blackout
  • Over 200 power problems across the USA power grid network.
  • Some satellites were out of control for several hours.
  • Space Shuttle Discovery had a few glitches [2]

 There have been several smaller CMEs over the decades hitting earth causing radio communication problems and causing problems with magnetic devices such as compasses and we have survived them.  Most people may not have even noticed they had happened.

  

 

 

 

Aurora Borealis

How would a CME affect us today?

The Earth’s magnetic field has been getting weaker since the Carrington Event so the CME does not have to be as strong to cause the same problems.  We don’t even need a CME to cause some problems as the South Atlantic Anomaly (a weaker area of the magnetic field) [4] causes problems for satellites, planes or ships that pass through the area due to the greater exposure to solar radiation. 

 Power grid failures

 Surges along power lines could cause at least tripping out of circuit breakers and at worst fires and explosions in

  • Transformers
  • Control stations
  • Power stations
  • Household and business switchboards

 Taking out the electrical grid will also disrupt most technologies that rely on electricity

  • Lighting
  • Power
  • Refrigeration, heating or cooling
  • Communications, internet
  • No online anything, banking, shopping, teller machines
  • Most businesses, medical facilities, fuel stations, utilities requiring power.  Let’s hope their backup generators are damaged.

 Electronics – the CME radiation may not affect our electronics individually but could cause glitches.  And then there’s the problem of power, laptops and mobile devices have limited battery storage.  Without electricity to charge the devices up again they are dead until the electrical grid is restored.

 Electronic glitches – ever walking under a power line or past something in a shopping centre and had the signal drop out on your phone.  Electrical currents, radio waves, radiation and the like can overpower or cancel out other radio waves causing glitches.  During a CME attack on the planet the bombardment of radiation will interfere with the communications (machine to machine).

 Satellites out of control now have a higher risk of taking out other satellites today as there are so many in orbit now compared to 1989. Satellite damage can affect telephone, internet and TV signals. 

HF Radio communication will have problems during the event as they use the ionosphere to bounce their signals around the globe.

 GPS failures, GPS systems use satellites to triangulate your position on the planet.  With satellites become damaged or moving out of their location GPS data would no longer be correct.

Military technical issues with GPS and magnetic devices.

 

 

Solar flares

Will CMEs affect humans?

The Earth’s atmosphere will protect humans from the radiation [6] associated with a CME but those who are outside our atmosphere, such as the space station or on the moon will experience raised radiation levels well above their normal levels.

How to survive a CME hitting Earth?

Stay informed – listen to warnings and follow all lawful directions

Have your emergency kit  prepared (at least 7 days) and checked regularly

Develop an emergency plan for dealing with the day to day living without electricity for a short term. 

 It may not be a CME, it could be a power station failure, hurricane, earthquake, anything that could badly damage the electrical grid in your area.

Educate yourself on the various disasters in your area and how to handle them.  You’ll be on a better footing for dealing with the problems when the communications systems do fail and you don’t have someone telling you what to do.

 Most importantly don’t panic.  Check every emergency plan out there and you’ll see ‘Panicking’ is not listed anywhere as a productive way to survive a disaster.  Be prepared and stay protected from the disaster and the people who are panicking.  Running around screaming or crying is not going to make your situation any better or increase your chances of survival.  And having a room full of toilet paper isn’t going to help either.

 

 

Key points

The Sun goes through cycles about every 11 years ranging from Solar minimum with little activity to Solar Maximum with greater activity.  This greater activity can range from flares, solar winds, CME’s and more.  The location of the Earth when a CME erupts will determine if we are hit or not by the electromagnetic blast. 

 There have been numerous events in the past which have affected some elements of technology.  If a big CME was to hit the planet today there would be a greater effect in some areas, as we have become more dependent on electricity and technology in our daily lives.  The world will not come to an end, just be uncomfortable for a while.  Especially if you are not prepared for any disaster.

 To get your free emergency kit checklist.

 

Further reading

 https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2020/08/carrington-event-warning/

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Atlantic_Anomaly

 Weatherman’s Guide to the Sun 3rd Ed, Ben Davidson, Space Weather News 2020

References

1.. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/spaceweather/index.html#q4

2.. https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/sun_darkness.html

3.. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/solar-cycle-25-is-here-nasa-noaa-scientists-explain-what-that-means

4.. https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Swarm/Swarm_probes_weakening_of_Earth_s_magnetic_field

 5.. https://spaceweatherarchive.com/2020/05/12/the-great-geomagnetic-storm-of-may-1921/

6.. https://earthsky.org/space/are-solar-storms-dangerous-to-us/

7.. https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/phenomena/coronal-mass-ejections

 

 

 

 

 

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