What if a Powerful Coronal Mass Ejection Hit Earth? 11 Things To Know

The Sun rages from a distance and we turn a blind eye to its power. But what would happen if a powerful coronal mass ejection struck Earth?

Life as we know it could crumble, yet most people have no clue about this looming natural disaster. We’re cocooned in a bubble, naively believing that our daily lives will never change.

But let’s face it—history paints a wildly different picture. We’re living in a turbulent universe, just clinging on for the thrill of the ride.

This is precisely why we need to dive into the mysteries of powerful coronal mass ejections, particularly the most extreme scenarios. Sure, plenty of articles rely on recent events to claim that life will carry on as usual. Balderdash!

In our eye-opening discussion, we’re going to push the boundaries. We’ll delve into a mind-boggling edge case event and scrutinize its possible impact on the U.S. power grids. And to truly hammer our point home, we’ll tackle 11 burning questions you absolutely need to know.

#1 What is a coronal mass ejection?

Sun schematic diagram
Photo Credit: Kelvin Ma

A coronal mass ejection is a colossal eruption of magnetized plasma bursting from the Sun’s surface.

But let’s dive into the thrilling world of coronal mass ejections to truly grasp their unpredictable and powerful nature.

First, envision the Sun as a gigantic, radiant ball of sizzling gas and plasma. It’s a bustling hub of activity—akin to New York City, the city that never sleeps. Inside the Sun, chaos reigns supreme.

While New York City may be known for its chilly weather, the Sun’s temperature is off the charts. Consequently, positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons are perpetually on the move. This superheated matter is what we call plasma.

As plasma swirls around, it generates magnetic fields. These magnetic field lines then shift, tangle, twist, and reconnect, triggering a series of disruptions. Astronomers theorize that this activity leads to sudden, random explosions of energy. In particular, expanding bubbles of plasma build up, driven away from the Sun along with magnetic fields, potentially erupting in spectacular solar flares.

To picture this, think of a tree branch that you bend and flex repeatedly. As you apply more force and keep bending the branch, it will eventually snap. In that instant, like a bullet shot from a rifle, the charged particles are violently hurled from the Sun. If Earth unluckily happens to be in the line of fire, it’s going to take a hit.

This vividly illustrates the sheer randomness of coronal mass ejections. They’re not something we can accurately analyze with Earth-bound instruments, making them all the more fascinating and enigmatic.

#2 How does a coronal mass ejection affect Earth?

To simplify the explanation, let me use the analogy of an AC generator broken up into 5 parts:

Part #1: Imagine a hydroelectric plant where a turbine spins with the sheer force of cascading water. A generator connected to the turbine transforms mechanical energy into electrical energy.

Essentially, the turbine spins copper wire inside the generator around colossal magnets, generating electricity. The swifter the coil rotates, the higher the current the generator pumps out.

Cue Faraday’s law of induction: A fluctuating magnetic field produces an electrical current within a conductor.

Part #2: The Sun unleashes a coronal mass ejection, and shortly afterward, magnetized plasma hurtles into Earth’s magnetic field.

We call this spine-tingling event a Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD).

Part #3: The impact bends Earth’s magnetic field, sometimes even overwhelming it.

Consequently, geoelectric fields emerge in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Part #4: Down on Earth, thousands of miles of low-resistance transmission lines weave across the landscape. Also, many low-resistance manmade ground wires burrow beneath the surface.

Visualize these as the wires in our generator from Part #1. Each wire serves as a geomagnetic antenna, primed and ready.

Part #5: As Earth’s magnetic field shifts, the wires from Part #4 encounter induced currents. We call these Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC).

This spectacular chain of events demonstrates how unwelcome currents can effortlessly infiltrate our power grids, keeping us on high alert!

Better understanding GIC

Imagine the Earth’s magnetic field as a slow, rhythmic dance, gracefully changing due to Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) events. In essence, the magnetic field remains relatively steady over time.

Why is that, you ask? Picture an almost constant shower of charged particles raining down upon our planet. These particles, originating from the Sun, journey towards Earth at remarkably similar speeds.

Now, envision occasional bursts of energy that create pulses lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Within one exciting 5-minute interval, the density of charged particles might surge, only to recede in the following moments. On the whole, though, the dance remains quite uniform.

As a consequence, the current generated is akin to a quasi Direct Current (DC). Researchers have found that this current’s frequency lies between 0.1 to 0.001 Hz. Bear in mind that a true direct current boasts a frequency of zero.

Important note: Static magnetic fields don’t change intensity or direction over time, so they have a frequency of 0 Hz. Therefore, the Earth’s magnetic field without a GMD event is a static field.

Furthermore, the U.S. power system uses 60 Hz frequency AC, so you can see why we call GIC quasi-DC when compared to our power system.

Important note: In the U.S., electricity changes direction with a frequency of 60 cycles per second or 60 Hz, meaning that the electromagnetic field changes its orientation 60 times every second.

Now, changes in Earth’s magnetic field create electric fields. According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a GMD event will cause a 100-year peak geoelectric field of 8.05 volts/mile and 32.19 volts/mile for high and low conductive regions, respectively.

This explains why long transmission lines become more vulnerable to GMD events. It’s because the total cross-sectional area of the line loop and ground return is large. As a result, these lines can capture more of the changing magnetic field as it travels over them. Therefore, large currents can be induced into these lines, especially if they are properly oriented in the direction of the changing magnetic field.

Important note: I believe the geoelectric field values listed by NERC are very low. The Earth can and will experience a much more powerful GMD event in the future. I will discuss this in greater depth in later sections.

Thomas Gold’s Studies on coronal mass ejections

Let’s zoom in on the captivating story of Thomas Gold, a brilliant astrophysicist and esteemed professor at Cornell University. Back in the swinging ’60s, he was making waves with his groundbreaking research on solar weather.

Professor Gold studied powerful coronal mass ejections. He discovered that these awe-inspiring events could unleash massive, simultaneous lightning storms, igniting fires in every corner of our planet.

Also, we have evidence of how solar activity can lead to other natural disasters. They can trigger earthquakes through the disruption of Earth’s magnetosphere. Visualize tectonic plates, teetering on the edge of motion, suddenly springing into action due to a geomagnetic disturbance. And if that’s not enough, the same forces could stoke volcanic activity

Remember, our Sun is a fiery, explosive star. Stars are anything but peaceful; they’re tumultuous, incandescent balls of gas.

In the grand cosmic narrative, everything undergoes periods of instability. It would be downright naive for us humans to assume the Sun will forever stay quiet just so we can enjoy our cozy little lives.

#3 What are the chances of a coronal mass ejection hitting Earth?

In 1859, an electrifying storm of charged particles burst into Earth’s atmosphere! This incredible coronal mass ejection, known as the Carrington Event, made history as the first recorded solar storm of such magnitude.

Before this cosmic storm, mysterious dark spots—now called sunspots—were spotted on the Sun’s fiery surface. In no time, billions of tons of charged particles rocketed toward Earth.

The event threw Earth’s magnetic field into disarray, leading to:

  • Telegraph wires shorting out across Northern Europe and America
  • Some telegraph systems mysteriously operating despite losing connection to the power grid
  • Raging fires erupting far and wide

Fast forward over a century to 1989, when a massive coronal mass ejection rocked Quebec and Northeast America. Some speculate that this geomagnetic disturbance was even mightier than the Carrington Event.

Sure, from a human perspective, these events were colossal. But from an astrophysical standpoint? They’re just a drop in the cosmic ocean.

Bear in mind, we have scarce data on gargantuan coronal mass ejections. We’ve only been gathering quality intel for the past half-century.

As of now, we estimate that every 200 years or so, Earth will be struck by a monumental event like the Carrington Event. But the million-dollar question remains: when will an even more massive event come knocking on our cosmic door?…

#4 How much warning time do we have from a powerful coronal mass ejection?

Thanks to our ever-advancing technology, we’re keeping a watchful eye on the Sun’s activity like never before. We gather data on solar winds, monitor shifts in the Sun’s magnetic field, and so much more.

NASA has satellites acting as celestial sentinels, keeping tabs on the Sun’s every move. One of these space guardians, known as the ‘Advanced Composition Explorer’ (ACE), is stationed at the strategically important Lagrange point L1—roughly 870,000 miles from Earth.

In these Lagrange points, we can park objects indefinitely, and they’ll stay put. The perk? At L1, we get a front-row seat to the Sun’s show, giving us an invaluable head start in anticipating potential solar events.

According to The Astrophysical Journal, we’ll have a 26.4 ±15.3-hour heads-up for a typical event. But when it comes to extreme events, the Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate warns we might only have a heart-stopping 20-minute notice.

Ultimately, the Sun still holds plenty of secrets. Even with our top-notch tracking equipment, cutting-edge software simulations, and vigilant satellites, we can’t always rely on early detection of a colossal solar outburst. The cosmic clock is ticking, and the stakes are high!

#5 How to safeguard Earth from a powerful coronal mass ejection?

High voltage transmission lines
Photo Credit: evening_tao

Preparation is the name of the game, and today, we’re equipped to do so much to shield our power grids. Let’s dive into the world of high-stakes safeguards!

Shed loads from transformers or shut off the power grid

With a timely heads-up, we can cleverly shed loads from the power grid or even take our critical electrical equipment offline.

This move would protect our large power transformers. You see, when excess current rushes into a transformer’s core, it can reach saturation point.

Transformers are carefully manufactured to carry only a specific amount of current. When the current surges beyond limits, the magnetic field bursts out from the transformer’s core like a fierce tidal wave. This magnetic tsunami engulfs the surrounding transformer parts, potentially causing them to overheat.

At this critical juncture, the transformer core would have exceeded its max magnetic flux capabilities. Unpredictable currents would then snake through input and output wires. If the transformer doesn’t fail outright, it’ll slowly degrade as wires and insulation overheat, inevitably meeting its demise weeks or months later.

By shedding loads, we can ease the pressure on a transformer, enabling it to better withstand the onslaught of current from a coronal mass ejection.

To pull this off, grid operators need top-notch training to spring into action with just an hour’s notice. This valiant effort could transform long-term catastrophe into short-term upheaval!

Upgrade protective relays

Upgrading outdated and aged protective relays in power grids. In a nutshell, relays control the opening of circuit breakers in electric circuits, and they’re crucial for high-voltage situations.

To grasp the problem and the solution, let’s discuss transformers more in-depth.

When a transformer core reaches saturation, current and voltage waveforms go haywire, sometimes deviating wildly from the smooth sinusoidal waveform of an AC circuit.

As a result, protective relays can trip in unpredictable ways. Old-school electromagnetic relays struggle to keep up with these distorted waveforms, tripping too early or too late.

Enter the age of smart, modern digital relays, which we can program to react with precision to these chaotic scenarios. In return, we can safely isolate all sensitive parts of an electrical grid, ensuring our most valuable electrical equipment emerges unscathed.

DC blocking devices

These devices work block quasi-DC flow in AC systems from GMD events. They’re typically used for transformers and the devices include:

  • Disconnect at the neutral to ground connection
  • Inductor at the neutral to-ground connection
  • The resistor at the neutral to-ground connection
  • The capacitor at the neutral to ground connection
  • Capacitor with by-pass at the neutral to ground connection
  • Semiconductor switch at the neutral to ground connection

Take, for instance, the Capacitor. It blocks the quasi-DC flow from a GMD event, ensuring the safety and stability of a transformer’s neutral-to-ground connection.

#6 Problems with today’s safeguards

NASA assures us not to worry about coronal mass ejections, as they’ll provide early warnings.

Scientists at NASA and NOAA issue warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators, and airline pilots before a CME reaches Earth, allowing these groups to take proper precautions.

NASA, too, has skin in the game. Their space equipment is sensitive to solar anomalies, so they’re keen on keeping a watchful eye on the Sun.

Yet, my attention remains riveted on those formidable solar storms—where NASA’s prowess might not be enough.

Remember, the magnitude of GMD events is hard to foresee. We don’t want to power down our grids unless it’s a dire necessity. A false alarm could drain billions or even trillions of dollars.

The real challenge arises with major solar events, as we won’t have much warning. It’s not like we can flick a switch and instantly protect our power grids.

Moreover, we lack ample data on these rare events. It’s foolhardy to assume we’ve anticipated every solar curveball.

True, our technology advances year after year, but countless unknown variables lurk in the shadows, and there’s still so much to learn about the enigmatic Sun.

Navigating this cosmic conundrum is no small feat. Accurately modeling every global magnetospheric change triggered by a solar outburst is nearly impossible.

With that in mind, let’s revisit the challenges posed by each of our previous safeguards from Section #4, as we strive to stand our ground against the Sun’s tempestuous tantrums.

Sun monitoring satellites

A mere sunspot won’t inform us whether a coronal mass ejection is about to head our way.

To make matters more challenging, many of our satellites orbiting out there are aging and not exactly in tip-top shape. Plus, satellites can’t immediately detect Electric and Magnetic Field (EMF) effects from coronal mass ejections.

EMF effects must first hit a monitoring device that’s able to detect them. Considering most of these devices are in Earth’s orbit, not including those at Lagrange points, the warning time might be too short to react.

Electromagnetic relays

These relays may face extra torque from harmonics induced by the quasi-DC flow from GMD events. Consequently, this can throw a wrench in their proper functioning, causing them not to trip as they should.

Important note: Electromagnetic relays block direct currents. This is because they use Current Transformers (CTs) and Potential Transformers (PTs) to monitor AC circuits. CTs and PTs read AC signals only.

But, when quasi-DC flow superimposes on AC, the AC waveform will change. This can then disrupt the relay tripping mechanism. In other words, the relay may become confused about when to trip.

On that note, I’ve noticed that these relays are installed all over California, and it doesn’t seem like their owners have any plans to replace them anytime soon.

Many of these relays are ill-equipped to handle anything less than ideal conditions, with their limited mechanical capabilities and aging parts just waiting to cause problems. To make matters worse, some of these relics still in use today are over 50 years old!

Then in less developed countries, these outdated relays are even more widespread.

Microprocessor relays

Just like anything else, their components age over time, and this can lead to a drift in operating accuracy of up to 15%.

But that’s not the only issue. The programming itself can be problematic. How do you accurately calculate the Root Mean Square (RMS) value for a voltage waveform when there’s a ton of distortion? That’s a big deal, especially when Geomagnetically Induced Current (GIC) is causing tremendous waveform distortion.

That’s why these relays need sophisticated algorithms to avoid any misoperations. Namely, the ability to detect the fundamental frequency between all harmonics, which is still an evolving technology. After all, we learned the hard way with those old-school electromechanical relays that harmonics can cause all sorts of chaos.

But that’s not all – these relays also have set time delays before they trigger circuit breakers to open. And let’s not forget, circuit breakers themselves have operating times too. None of these devices can react instantly.

Unfortunately, at many utility facilities, I’ve seen plenty of device operating times that are way over 0.13 seconds. And when you factor in the age of the equipment, those operating times can become even longer.

At many utility facilities, I’ve seen plenty of device operating times greater than 0.13 seconds. Then with the age factor, the operating time can further be elongated.

Long story short, with enough delay in operation, electrical equipment can suffer some serious damage. And to make matters worse, there are no standards in place for newly installed protection components, whether it’s the relay model selection or the relay trip settings.

So, who’s to say that these fancy microprocessor relays are always better than good old electromagnetic relays? Without proper upkeep and standards, there are still a lot of unknowns out there.

Important note: Both microprocessor and electromagnetic relays won’t monitor currents entering transformers at the neutral to ground connection. And it’s precisely at this connection point where most of the power grid damage from solar events will occur.

Human errors from chaos and fear

We may only get a few hours of warning before a coronal mass ejection hits us. Now, imagine the chaos that would ensue in the control room as operators scramble to save our power grid. It’s a high-stress situation, and not everyone is cut out for it, no matter how prepared they may think they are.

But here’s the kicker – despite the immense danger that a coronal mass ejection poses, I just don’t see the proper training in place to deal with it. I’ve talked to plenty of people in the power industry, and they all agree – the training is nonexistent.

And let’s not forget how the U.S. responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, even with weeks of advance warning. Our response was sluggish, disorganized, and less than optimal. And that’s with all the investment we’ve made in fighting viruses like SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and more. If we can’t handle a measly virus, how in the world are we going to deal with a massive solar event?

DC blocking systems

Let’s go over the shortcomings of each device:

Disconnect at the neutral to ground connection: We need advanced warning to flip the switch, which is a problem of its own

Now, if we leave the switch open, it’ll cause voltage transients and problems with ground fault detection. It could also cause safety and insulation problems in certain fault situations.

Inductor at the neutral to ground connection: An inductor is the same as a short in a DC circuit. We use inductors to limit the flow of AC, but GMD events induce quasi-DC flow. Thus, an inductor wouldn’t help.

Resistor at the neutral to ground connection: They’ll reduce GIC flow, but they’ll also reduce ground fault protection sensitivity.

Capacitor at the neutral to ground connection: They’ll completely block GIC flow, but they may cause ferroresonance or excessive heating in equipment.

Capacitor with by-pass at the neutral to ground connection: This is actually a good solution. The bypass will limit the ferroresonance issue, but like the disconnect option, operators need enough advance warning to flip the switch.

Semiconductor switch at the neutral to ground connection: Not proven in the field, but I believe this is the most promising device of all the options.

Of course, cost is a significant factor to consider when it comes to installing these devices. Power grids are massive machines, and the cost to install DC blocking devices everywhere can be daunting.

Speaking of daunting, cities and counties have plenty of electrical problems to deal with today. The aging US power grid requires a lot of attention as it is. How can we plan for the future when we have so many existing problems to tackle?

In all my years of observing transformers, I’ve rarely seen any of these DC blocking devices installed. It’s a shame, really. I mean, we should be talking about this stuff more often!

#7 My fear of a powerful coronal mass ejection


With everything I’ve discussed so far, I’m confident that the U.S. power grid can handle what most people would consider an extreme GMD event. You know, something like the infamous Carrington Event.

But my focus is on an outlier GMD event of epic proportions, one that I believe occurred not too long ago in Earth’s history. I’ll discuss this in great detail in Section #10.

Now, let’s talk about my fear: power transformer damage from low-frequency, high-magnitude currents. Transformers are essential to modern life. They step up and step down voltages, taking us from 500,000 volts all the way down to a measly 120 volts. Without them, life as we know it would come to an instant halt.

But here’s the kicker: according to NERC, the geoelectric fields created by a violent GMD event will be small in magnitude, resulting in small quasi-direct currents. And call me a skeptic, but I don’t buy it. We’ve only been observing the Sun for less than a century, which is a mere blip in its lifetime. Who’s to say that the Sun won’t unleash even more charged particles than we can imagine? This means that the geoelectric fields on Earth would be much stronger, resulting in larger quasi-direct currents.

Going forward, we’ll refer to these low-frequency, high-magnitude currents as GICs. They flow into transformers from the neutral to ground connections, superimposing over the 60 Hz transformer frequencies. This causes the transformer’s frequency to drop and its electrical waveforms to become unrecognizable, and undoubtedly, this is where the problems begin.

But wait, there’s more! GIC flow also acts as an offset, causing an additional magnetic flux in the transformer core. This pushes the AC flux waveform closer to saturation in one half-cycle.

Important note: Transformers are designed to operate only within the linear region of their magnetizing characteristics as dictated by the 60 Hz frequency. However, GIC flow shifts a transformer’s operating point outside of the linear region.

Transformer saturation from GIC

GIC flow can saturate the magnetic core of a transformer, and this is what we call half-cycle saturation.

Once saturated, the magnetic circuit segment of a transformer can’t carry any extra magnetic field, resulting in non-linear behavior. And this leads to all sorts of trouble, including harmonics, the need for reactive power compensation, and, you guessed it, heating.

Let’s focus on heating. A transformer’s rating tells us how much current can flow through its copper windings. If too much current flows, losses in the windings start adding up real fast.

Copper losses are the wastage of power from I^{2}R losses in a transformer’s windings. Where ‘I’ is the current through the windings, and ‘R’ is the resistance of the winding material. In simpler terms, it’s the heat generated by the current flowing through the windings.

And once the heat starts building up, the entire transformer can start to overheat, from the oil to the windings, to the containment, to the insulation system, and everything else.

Important note: When GIC flow hits a transformer, it’s a domino effect of issues, which unfold. 

I’m going to explain in detail how the transformer damage happens. Let’s look at the EMF equation of a transformer: E = 4.44fN_{1}\Theta_{m}

E: Applied voltage across the transformer coil
f: Frequency
N_{1}: Number of turns in the primary winding of the transformer
\Theta_{m}: Maximum flux in the transformer core, where “flux” is the magnetic flux. In other words, the measurement of the total magnetic field that passes through a given area.

Reconfiguring the EMF equation we get: \Theta_{m} = \dfrac{E}{4.44fN_{1}}

Now, let’s put the puzzle pieces together for our scenario.

We inject low-frequency, high-magnitude currents into the transformer from the neutral to the ground connection, creating our GIC flow from a coronal mass ejection. Assume the voltage remains constant.

Next, the frequency (f) decreases due to the GIC flow, causing the flux volume (Φm) in the transformer core to increase. And when the flux density goes above 1.7T (the operating flux density for transformers), things start to get hairy.

The transformer’s core losses stop being linear and start increasing rapidly. The transformer can no longer contain the flux, and it overflows into all parts of the transformer. This leads to overheating from eddy losses and, ultimately, transformer failure. It’s a delicate balance, my friends, and one that we need to keep a close eye on.

Important note: Certain types of transformers are more vulnerable to this internal heating. For example, a three-phase autotransformer bank. 

Inductive reactance of a coil

Inductive reactance (X_{L}) is the opposition to the flow of current, similar to resistance. However, in this case, the opposition is sourced from an inductor rather than a resistor. Therefore, the higher the value of X_{L}, the less current can flow through it.

The inductive reactance equation is X_{L} = 2\Pi fL, where ‘L’ represents the reactance of a coil of wire, in this case, the transformer’s coil of wire.

As the frequency (f) decreases during GIC flow, the value of X_{L} also decreases, which means more current can flow in the transformer’s windings. Therefore, the GIC flow can more easily overload the transformer’s windings.

Important note: Inductors limit AC flow but don’t block DC flow. Since DC flow has a frequency of zero, let’s make f=0 in the X_{L} = 2\Pi fL equation. Thus, X_{L} = 0. This shows us how GIC flow will travel unhindered inside a transformer. 

Volts per hertz ratio

It’s important to realize that the problem is not just the under-frequency, but also the volts per hertz ratio. As we discussed earlier, inductive reactance plays a crucial role in this.

When the volts per hertz ratio increases, a transformer can become saturated and overheat. In the case of GIC flow, the frequency decreases, which leads to an increase in magnetizing current. This causes too much current to flow in the transformer’s windings, and the flux density increases.

To better understand this, let’s go over Ohm’s Law for inductive reactance:

I = \dfrac{V}{X_{L}}, where X_{L} = 2\Pi fL

I = \dfrac{V}{2\Pi fL}

I: Current
V: Voltage
f: Frequency
L: Inductance

As you can see, when the voltage-to-frequency ratio increases, the current also increases. Therefore, if we could somehow decrease the voltage in proportion to the frequency, we could avoid a lot of transformer damage. In other words, there is an ideal ratio between voltage and frequency where a transformer can operate safely without any harm.

Important note: The quasi-DC flow alone in most GMD events is not a cause for concern. It’s the interaction of quasi-DC flow with 60 Hz equipment that causes problems.

How can we immediately protect against GIC?

Low resistance transformer neutral to ground connections become ideal paths for low-frequency currents. Especially in regions with high resistivity soil.

Important note: the same planetary magnetic field won’t create the same surface electric field in all areas of the globe. This is because local ground conductivity differs in areas. 

Now, operators can shed load from transformers to reduce winding heat, as we learned earlier. However, in the case of a powerful coronal mass ejection, shedding load will not make any significant difference.

I believe the best option for the future is to use smart high-voltage power electronics, as discussed in Section #5. By using a semiconductor switch at the neutral-to-ground connection, we can instantly block high-magnitude GIC flow. The blocking will be automatic and without any negative effects.

In the meantime, installing neutral-to-ground switches would certainly help. Prior to a GMD event, we could temporarily open the neutral-to-ground switch, which would prevent a lot of transformer damage if timed correctly. However, it’s worth noting that this is not a common practice I see in the field today.

#8 What type of destruction could a powerful coronal mass ejection cause?

The destruction that a severe GMD event can cause is unimaginable. In the United States, I foresee the greatest problems with large power transformers. But, in developing nations, the impact would be devastating on multiple fronts.

These nations often lack standardized electrical designs and rely on outdated protective devices, leaving them vulnerable to the catastrophic effects of a GMD event. However, let’s just focus on the potential impact on large power transformers.

Hidden challenges with large power transformers

Outdoor transformer and incoming line

As we learned, large power transformers are vulnerable to unwanted geomagnetic induced currents, which can cause them to fail, resulting in power loss to parts of our grid. But replacing these transformers is no easy task.

You can’t simply go to a local yard and buy a large power transformer. Almost every one that’s produced is already spoken for, as they are expensive and customized to each client’s specific needs. This means that I rarely see large backup power transformers sitting idle at sites.

What’s more, manufacturing a single transformer can take up to 18 to 24 months during non-distressed times. And all the manufacturing plants are located outside of the U.S. So, just imagine the chaos that would ensue if the following were to happen:

The entire world suddenly needs large power transformers manufactured at once. The 18 to 24-month lead time could turn into five-plus years, leaving us without critical infrastructure.

But that’s not all; if the manufacturing facilities lost power, how would they even produce these transformers? And let’s not forget that shipping them from overseas takes months, and highways need to close to transport these massive units over state lines.

Restarting the Power Grid

The power grid is like a giant, intricate machine with countless moving parts. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch to turn it on and off. In fact, black starting the power grid after a severe GMD event requires a massive, coordinated effort that can take anywhere from a week to several months.

And that’s assuming the damage to the equipment is minimal. When transformers fail, it can cause a ripple effect throughout the entire system, making the recovery process even more challenging.

#9 What’s the impact on the U.S. economy if a powerful coronal mass ejection hits Earth?

The modern world as we know it is heavily reliant on electricity and radio communication. From the appliances in our homes to the cars we drive, electricity plays a critical role in our daily lives.

In short, the world as we know it would crumble without electricity. The impact would be felt across the global economy, and the ripple effects would be devastating. Just consider the following impact list:

  • Water: Water treatment requires electricity, and transportation of water relies on electric motor-driven pumps.
  • Food: Farming, processing, transporting, and storing food all require electricity.
  • Light: Powering streets, buildings, and homes would all be affected.
  • Hardware: Smartphones, laptops, home appliances, and other devices would all be impacted.
  • Space equipment: Satellites and spacecraft in orbit would be damaged, further complicating the situation.
  • Internet: The internet would go down, halting banking and financial systems that rely on computers and the internet.
  • HVAC: Heating and cooling systems in homes and buildings would be affected.
  • Healthcare: Most hospital equipment is electrically powered, and pharmaceutical manufacturing requires electrical power.

The loss of these few listed items would cripple the U.S. economy like no other time in history. Unlike the coronavirus, the economy couldn’t unfreeze even if we wanted.

The issue would no longer circle around millions of unemployed and business bankruptcies. Instead, anarchy and deaths would take center stage if we lose power for more than even a couple of weeks.

#9 How long would it take the U.S. economy to recover from a powerful coronal mass ejection?

If you’re wondering how long it would take for us to recover from a total blackout, the answer is not encouraging. Given the state of our power grid today, it could take easily over a decade to get everything up and running again.

And that’s assuming no secondary problems arise from the blackout. We’ve seen how a virus pandemic can ravage society due to bad sanitation, so it’s not hard to imagine other serious consequences that could arise.

In short, electricity is the foundation that holds our modern society together. Without it, everything we know and rely on would unravel.

#10 What happened at the end of the last ice age?

Magnificent CME erupts on the Sun with Earth to scale
Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Approximately 11,000 to 15,000 years ago, the Earth experienced dramatic climate fluctuations. This period coincided with the end of the last ice age, when temperatures were freezing and then started to warm. Unexpectedly, the temperature dropped once more before the final warming phase commenced.

These temperature shifts were not only sudden but also extreme. Research reveals that these changes occurred within just a few years. In geological terms, climate transformations typically span hundreds to thousands of years, making these rapid alterations truly astounding.

Consequently, some scientists have proposed that a comet might have collided with Earth. However, no concrete evidence of such an impact, such as a crater or comet fragments, has been discovered.

Enter Robert M. Schoch, a Professor of Natural Science at Boston University, who posits that a powerful coronal mass ejection was responsible for the abrupt climate change. According to his theory, this event triggered massive floods as ice sheets over 10,000 feet high melted.

Intriguingly, research and collected data support Schoch’s hypothesis. Proxy indicators, like isotope measurements from ice and sediment cores, provide valuable insights into past solar activity.

Moreover, this theory aligns with a period marked by numerous large earthquakes, followed by intense volcanic activity. As we learned, coronal mass ejections can induce earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

This captivating theory might even explain the enigmatic fall of the Lost City of Atlantis. Perhaps a magnificent civilization truly existed before the ancient Egyptians, only to be obliterated by a sudden, cataclysmic natural disaster.

#11 What can the U.S. do to better prepare for a powerful coronal mass ejection?

There’s still so much mystery surrounding this type of natural disaster, and yet, we remain incredibly vulnerable. Imagine if a colossal event, similar to the one that potentially ended the last ice age, struck Earth today—we’d be at a loss!

Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we prepare for the Sun’s varying outbursts to prevent unnecessary devastation.

One significant challenge is that implementing robust mitigation plans can be pricey, especially considering we haven’t faced a major event in modern times. Naturally, it’s tough to justify the expense. Why bankrupt a nation with hungry people just to guard against a seemingly far-fetched geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) event?

Now, to give credit where it’s due, NASA and the U.S. government have made some strides. They’ve devised protection schemes to counter what they believe would be a large GMD event. But they haven’t considered an ultra-powerful solar outburst, so today’s mitigation plans are simply inadequate.

All things considered, we’re not fully grasping the scope of this potential catastrophe. Here are my suggestions for mitigation:

  • Install neutral-to-ground switches for power transformers.
  • Increase research funding for power electronic switches at transformer neutral-to-ground connections.
  • Bring large power transformer manufacturing facilities to America. This is no different than the issue of manufacturing masks, gloves, pharmaceuticals, and so on in China before the COVID-19 outbreak. This level of outsourcing places the U.S. at the mercy of other nations for essential supplies.
  • Retrofit and upgrade all components of the aging power grids.
  • Install real-time GIC monitors on power transformers.
  • Improve standardization of design models for all segments of power grids, starting with utilities adopting established standards.
  • Train grid operators properly to handle edge case GMD events.
  • Devise a plan of action for situations where a large percentage of power transformers fail instantly. It’s better to brainstorm now than to scramble during a blackout.
  • Develop loss-of-power operational plans for the food and healthcare industries. Planning ahead will prevent mass chaos resulting from a powerful GMD event.

Living in a chaotic universe

We’re often so wrapped up in our daily lives that we forget we’re soaring through open space. Our cozy Earth doesn’t come with a roof to shield us; just a thin layer of atmosphere stands between us and the countless perils of outer space.

Picture this: we’re sitting ducks on a spinning rock, with the chaos of the cosmos gazing down at us. Wild, huh?!

And let’s not forget, a colossal fireball fuels our little planet from a whopping 93 million miles away. This blazing behemoth could extinguish millions of years of evolution in a heartbeat. Talk about a humbling reality check!

What’s more, the Sun couldn’t care less if the Super Bowl is tomorrow or if AI takes the reins while humans ride shotgun. Our stellar neighbor will just keep doing what it’s done for eons—burning until its furious nuclear fusion engine finally fizzles out. And if that’s not enough to blow your mind, consider this: the Sun was here before us, and it’s likely to stick around long after we’re gone.

For all these reasons and more, we need to gear up for a powerful coronal mass ejection. At the very least, let’s craft a solid game plan to tackle an event that’s bound to strike someday. That way, we can safeguard humanity’s progress from being set back by decades or even more.

If a powerful coronal mass ejection were to hit Earth, do you think life would change forever? Are you fearful of coronal mass ejections, or do you believe the fear is overblown?

Featured Image Photo Credit: NASA/SDO (AIA)


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