The Sun, in all its fiery glory, makes us forget its insane power. But what if Earth got struck by a powerful coronal mass ejection?
Life as we know it could crumble, and yet most folks have no clue about this potential natural disaster. We’re snug in our bubble, foolishly thinking our daily lives will never change.
But come on—history tells us a wildly different story. We’re living in a turbulent universe, just hanging on for the adrenaline-pumping ride.
That’s exactly why we need to dive headfirst into the mysteries of powerful coronal mass ejections, especially the most extreme cases. Sure, there are tons of articles based on recent events saying life will go on as usual. Nonsense!
In our eye-opening chat, we’re going to push the limits. We’ll dig into a mind-blowing edge case event and examine its potential impact on the U.S. power grids. And to drive our point home, we’ll tackle 11 burning questions you absolutely must know.
#1 What is a coronal mass ejection?
A coronal mass ejection is a gigantic eruption of magnetized plasma exploding from the Sun’s surface.
But let’s jump into the exhilarating world of coronal mass ejections to truly understand their unpredictable and potent nature.
First, picture the Sun as a huge, glowing ball of piping-hot gas and plasma. It’s a bustling hive of activity—like New York City, the city that never sleeps. Inside the Sun, chaos reigns supreme.
While New York City might be known for its chilly weather, the Sun’s temperature is off the charts. As a result, positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons are constantly on the move. This superheated matter is what we call plasma.
As plasma swirls around, it creates magnetic fields. These magnetic field lines then shift, tangle, twist, and reconnect, causing a series of disruptions. Astronomers believe this activity leads to sudden, random explosions of energy. Specifically, expanding bubbles of plasma build up, pushed away from the Sun along with magnetic fields, potentially resulting in spectacular solar flares.
Imagine bending and flexing a tree branch repeatedly. As you apply more force and keep bending the branch, it’ll eventually snap. In that instant, like a bullet shot from a rifle, the charged particles are violently hurled from the Sun. If Earth is unlucky enough 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 mysterious.
#2 How does a coronal mass ejection affect Earth?
Let me break it down for you using the analogy of an AC generator in 5 parts:
Part #1: Picture a hydroelectric plant where a turbine spins from the sheer force of cascading water. A generator connected to the turbine converts mechanical energy into electrical energy.
Basically, the turbine spins copper wire inside the generator around huge magnets, creating electricity. The faster the coil rotates, the higher the current the generator produces.
Enter Faraday’s law of induction: A changing magnetic field generates an electrical current within a conductor.
Part #2: The Sun unleashes a coronal mass ejection, and soon after, magnetized plasma slams into Earth’s magnetic field.
We call this spine-chilling event a Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD).
Part #3: The impact bends Earth’s magnetic field, sometimes even overwhelming it.
As a result, geoelectric fields appear in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Part #4: Here on Earth, thousands of miles of low-resistance transmission lines crisscross the landscape. Additionally, many low-resistance manmade ground wires run underground.
Visualize these as the wires in our generator from Part #1. Each wire acts like a geomagnetic antenna, ready to go.
Part #5: As Earth’s magnetic field shifts, the wires from Part #4 experience induced currents. We call these Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC).
This incredible chain of events shows how unwanted currents can easily sneak into 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?
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 heads-up from our space watchdogs, we can smartly unload our power grid or even take our critical electrical equipment offline to keep it safe.
This strategy protects our large power transformers. Picture this: excess current rushes into a transformer’s core, pushing it to its saturation point.
Transformers are designed to carry a specific amount of current. When that limit is surpassed, the magnetic field explodes out of the transformer’s core like a massive tidal wave. This magnetic tsunami engulfs surrounding parts, potentially causing them to overheat.
When a transformer’s core hits its max magnetic flux capacity, current slithers through input and output wires. If the transformer doesn’t fail right away, it’ll slowly degrade as wires and insulation overheat, eventually meeting its doom 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.
For this strategy to work, grid operators need top-notch training to spring into action with just an hour’s notice. This heroic effort could turn long-term catastrophe into short-term disruption!
Upgrade protective relays
It’s time to update those old, worn-out protective relays in our power grids. In short, most relays control the opening of circuit breakers in electric circuits and are crucial for high-voltage situations.
To understand the issue and the solution, let’s dig deeper into transformers.
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 unpredictably. Outdated electromagnetic relays struggle to keep up with these distorted waveforms, tripping too early or too late.
Enter the age of smart, modern digital relays! We can program these relays to react precisely to chaotic scenarios, safely isolating sensitive parts of an electrical grid and ensuring our most valuable electrical equipment emerges unscathed.
DC blocking devices
These devices block quasi-DC flow in AC systems from GMD events. They’re typically used for transformers and include:
- Disconnect at the neutral to ground connection
- Inductor at the neutral to-ground connection
- Resistor at the neutral to-ground connection
- 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
Consider 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 tells us not to sweat coronal mass ejections, as they’ll give us early warnings.
Scientists at NASA and NOAA issue alerts to electric companies, spacecraft operators, and airline pilots before a CME reaches Earth, allowing these groups to take proper precautions.
NASA has a vested interest, too. Their space equipment is sensitive to solar anomalies, so they’re all about keeping a watchful eye on the Sun.
But, I can’t shake the feeling that massive solar storms might just be too much for even NASA’s know-how.
It’s important to remember that predicting the magnitude of GMD events is tough. We don’t want to shut down our grids unless absolutely essential. A false alarm could cost billions or even trillions of dollars.
The real challenge comes with major solar events, as we won’t have much warning. We can’t just flip a switch and instantly protect our power grids.
Additionally, we don’t have enough data on these rare events. It’s reckless to assume we’ve anticipated every solar surprise.
Sure, our technology improves year after year, but countless unknown variables hide in the shadows, and there’s still so much to learn about the mysterious Sun.
Navigating this cosmic riddle is no small task. Accurately modeling every global magnetospheric change triggered by a solar outburst is nearly impossible.
With that in mind, let’s delve into the challenges posed by each of our previous safeguards from Section #4, as we strive to stand strong against the Sun’s fiery fits.
Sun monitoring satellites
A simple sunspot won’t tell us if a coronal mass ejection is about to come our way.
To make matters more complicated, many satellites orbiting out there are aging and not exactly in prime condition. Moreover, satellites can’t instantly detect Electric and Magnetic Field (EMF) effects from coronal mass ejections.
EMF effects must first hit a monitoring device capable of detecting them. Since most of these devices are in Earth’s orbit, not including those at Lagrange points, the warning time might be too short to react.
These relays might experience extra torque from harmonics induced by the quasi-DC flow from GMD events. This can mess with their proper functioning, causing them not to trip as they should.
Important note: Electromagnetic relays block direct currents. They use Current Transformers (CTs) and Potential Transformers (PTs) to monitor AC circuits, which read AC signals only.
But, when quasi-DC flow superimposes on AC, the AC waveform changes. This can then disrupt the relay tripping mechanism. In simpler terms, the relay may become confused about when to trip.
I’ve noticed these relays all over California, and it seems like their owners have no plans to replace them soon.
Many of these relays are ill-equipped to handle less than perfect conditions, with limited mechanical capabilities and aging parts waiting to cause trouble. Worse still, some of these relics still in use today are over 50 years old!
In less developed countries, these outdated relays are even more common.
You know, just like everything else, microprocessor relays age over time too, leading to a drift in their operating accuracy by up to 15%. But wait, there’s more! The programming itself can throw a wrench into things. Imagine trying to accurately calculate the Root Mean Square (RMS) value for a voltage waveform when there’s a boatload of distortion. That’s no small task, especially when Geomagnetically Induced Current (GIC) is stirring up some serious waveform distortion.
That’s why these relays need some super-smart algorithms to avoid any missteps. We’re talking about detecting the fundamental frequency between all harmonics, and guess what? That’s still an evolving technology! We learned the hard way with those old-school electromechanical relays that harmonics can cause a whole lotta chaos.
But hang on – these relays also have set time delays before they trigger circuit breakers to open. And don’t forget, circuit breakers have operating times too. None of these gizmos can react in the blink of an eye.
Sadly, in many utility facilities, I’ve seen device operating times that are way over the typical 0.13 seconds. Toss in the age of the equipment, and those times just keep getting longer. The bottom line is, with enough delay, electrical equipment can take a serious beating. And worse yet, there aren’t any standards for newly installed protection components, whether it’s the relay model selection or the relay trip settings.
So, who’s to say that these high-tech microprocessor relays are always better than their good ol’ electromagnetic cousins? Without proper maintenance and standards, there’s a whole bunch of unknowns lurking out there.
Important note: Neither microprocessor nor electromagnetic relays keep an eye on currents entering transformers at the neutral-to-ground connection. And that’s exactly where most of the power grid damage from solar events will happen.
Human errors from chaos and fear
We might only have a few hours of warning before a coronal mass ejection slams into us. Picture the pandemonium in the control room as operators frantically try to save our power grid. It’s a high-pressure situation, and not everyone can handle the heat, no matter how ready they think they are.
But here’s the real kicker – even with the massive danger that a coronal mass ejection poses, I don’t see any proper training in place to handle it. I’ve chatted with a bunch of folks in the power industry, and they all agree – the training is virtually nonexistent.
And let’s not even get started on how the U.S. dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, even with weeks of advance warning. Our response was slow, messy, and less than stellar. And that’s after investing in fighting viruses like SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and more. If we can’t handle a measly virus, how on earth will we cope with a gigantic solar event?
DC blocking systems
Alright, let’s break down the shortcomings of each device:
Disconnect at the neutral to ground connection: We need a heads-up to flip the switch, which is a problem in itself.
Leaving the switch open could cause voltage transients and issues with ground fault detection, not to mention safety and insulation problems in certain fault situations.
Inductor at the neutral to ground connection: An inductor acts like a short in a DC circuit. We use inductors to limit AC flow, but GMD events bring on quasi-DC flow. So, an inductor wouldn’t do much good.
Resistor at the neutral to ground connection: They’ll cut down on 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 at the same time, they might lead to ferroresonance or excessive heating in equipment.
Capacitor with by-pass at the neutral to ground connection: This solution is pretty solid. The bypass helps control the ferroresonance issue, but just like the disconnect option, operators need enough heads-up to flip the switch.
Semiconductor switch at the neutral to ground connection:
It’s not yet proven in the field, but in my opinion, this little gem is the most promising device out of all the options.
Of course, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room: cost. Power grids are massive machines, and the price tag to install DC blocking devices everywhere can be downright scary.
Speaking of scary, cities and counties already have their hands full with electrical problems. Our aging U.S. power grid needs some serious TLC. How can we plan for the future when we’re drowning in current issues?
In all my years of checking out transformers, I’ve rarely come across these DC blocking devices. It’s a crying shame, really. We should be discussing this stuff way more often!
#7 My fear of a powerful coronal mass ejection
With everything I’ve chatted about so far, I’m pretty confident that the U.S. power grid can handle what most folks would consider an extreme GMD event. You know, something like that notorious Carrington Event.
But my mind is set on an outlier GMD event of epic proportions, one that I believe happened not too long ago in Earth’s history. I’ll dive into this in great detail in Section #11.
Now, let’s talk about what keeps me up at night: power transformer damage from low-frequency, high-magnitude currents. Transformers are the unsung heroes of modern life. They step up and step down voltages, going from a whopping 500,000 volts all the way down to a measly 120 volts. Without them, life as we know it would grind to a halt.
NERC says that the geoelectric fields created by a wild GMD event will be small, resulting in tiny quasi-direct currents. And I’m not buying it. We’ve only been watching the Sun for less than a century, which is just a blink in its lifetime. Who’s to say that the Sun won’t let loose even more charged particles than we can fathom? This means Earth’s geoelectric fields would become way stronger, leading to larger quasi-direct currents.
From here on out, we’ll call these low-frequency, high-magnitude currents GICs. They sneak into transformers through the neutral to ground connections, messing with the 60 Hz transformer frequencies. The transformer’s frequency drops, and its electrical waveforms get all wonky – that’s when the trouble starts.
But hold on, there’s more! GIC flow also acts as an offset, causing extra 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 work only within the linear region of their magnetizing characteristics, as determined by the 60 Hz frequency. But, GIC flow shifts a transformer’s operating point outside of the linear region.
Transformer saturation from GIC
Imagine the magnetic core of a transformer soaking up GIC flow like a sponge. When it’s all filled up, we call that half-cycle saturation. At this point, the transformer’s magnetic circuit can’t take any more, leading to non-linear behavior and a whole heap of issues: harmonics, 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.
These copper losses are the wasted power from 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.
Once the heat starts building up, the whole transformer starts to overheat—everything from the oil to the windings, containment, insulation system, and beyond.
Important note: When GIC flow hits a transformer, it’s a domino effect of issues just waiting to unfold.
Let’s take a closer look at how transformer damage occurs. We have this EMF equation of a transformer:
: Applied voltage across the transformer coil
: Number of turns in the primary winding of the transformer
: 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.
Rearranging the EMF equation, we get:
Now, let’s piece it all 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. Let’s assume the voltage stays constant.
Next, the frequency (f) decreases due to the GIC flow, causing the flux volume (Φm) in the transformer core to increase. When the flux density goes above 1.7T (the operating flux density for transformers), that’s when things go sideways.
The transformer’s core losses stop being linear and shoot up rapidly. The transformer can’t contain the flux anymore, and it spills into every part of the transformer. This leads to overheating from eddy losses and, ultimately, transformer failure.
Important note: Some transformers are more vulnerable to this internal heating, like a three-phase autotransformer bank.
Inductive reactance of a coil
Inductive reactance () is what opposes the flow of current, similar to resistance. The difference is that the opposition comes from an inductor, not a resistor. So, the higher the value of , the less current can flow through it.
The inductive reactance equation is , where ‘L’ represents the reactance of a coil of wire—in this case, the transformer’s coil of wire.
As the frequency (f) drops during GIC flow, the value of also decreases, allowing more current to flow in the transformer’s windings. So, 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 plug in in the equation. The result? . This shows us that GIC can freely flow inside a transformer.
Volts per hertz ratio
The real issue isn’t just under-frequency, but also the volts per hertz ratio. As we touched on earlier, inductive reactance plays a big part in this.
When the volts per hertz ratio goes up, a transformer can get saturated and overheat. With GIC flow, the frequency drops, leading to an increase in magnetizing current. This makes too much current flow in the transformer’s windings, and the flux density increases.
To better grasp this, let’s check out Ohm’s Law for inductive reactance:
As you can see, when the voltage-to-frequency ratio increases, so does the current. If we could somehow lower the voltage in proportion to the frequency, we could dodge a lot of transformer damage. In other words, there’s an ideal ratio between voltage and frequency where a transformer can work safely without getting hurt.
Important note: The quasi-DC flow alone in most GMD events isn’t a big deal. The real problem is when it interacts with 60 Hz equipment.
How can we immediately protect against GIC?
Low-resistance transformer neutral to ground connections make the perfect path for low-frequency currents—especially in areas with high resistivity soil.
Important note: The same planetary magnetic field won’t produce the same surface electric field everywhere on Earth. That’s because local ground conductivity varies from place to place.
Now, operators can shed load from transformers to cut down winding heat, as we learned earlier. But in the case of a powerful solar storm, shedding load won’t make much of a dent.
I think the best option for the future is to use smart high-voltage power electronics, as discussed in Section #5. By adding a semiconductor switch at the neutral-to-ground connection, we can instantly block high-magnitude GIC flow. The blocking will be automatic and won’t cause any negative effects.
In the meantime, installing neutral-to-ground switches could help. Before a GMD event, we could temporarily open the neutral-to-ground switch, preventing a lot of transformer damage if timed right. However, I’ve got to say, I don’t see this happening a lot in the field today.
#8 What type of destruction could a powerful coronal mass ejection cause?
The potential destruction of a severe GMD event is mind-blowing. Here in the United States, I’m particularly worried about the major issues with large power transformers. However, in developing countries, the damage would be devastating on so many levels.
These nations often have a mishmash of electrical designs and outdated protective gear, making them sitting ducks for the catastrophic effects of a GMD event. But for now, let’s zoom in on the possible impact on large power transformers.
Hidden troubles with large power transformers
As we’ve discovered, large power transformers are easy prey for pesky geomagnetic induced currents, which can cause them to fail and leave parts of our grid in the dark. And replacing these transformers is no walk in the park.
You can’t just pop down to the local junkyard and pick up a large power transformer. Practically every single one made is already claimed since they’re pricey and tailored to each customer’s unique needs. This means I hardly ever spot large backup power transformers sitting idle at sites.
What’s more, cranking out a single transformer can take a whopping 18 to 24 months during non-crisis periods. And to make matters worse, all the factories are outside the U.S. So picture the mayhem that would erupt if the following went down:
The entire world suddenly clamors for large power transformers to be built at once. The 18 to 24-month lead time could skyrocket to over five years, leaving us high and dry without critical infrastructure.
But wait, there’s more; if the manufacturing plants lost power, how on earth would they even churn out these transformers? And don’t forget that shipping them from abroad takes months, and highways must close to lug these colossal units across state lines.
Restarting the Power Grid
The power grid is like a colossal, complex machine with countless moving parts. It’s not as easy as flicking a switch to power it on and off. In fact, jump-starting the power grid after a brutal GMD event calls for a monumental, coordinated effort that can stretch anywhere from a week to several months.
And that’s assuming the damage to the equipment is just a scratch. When transformers bite the dust, it can trigger a domino effect throughout the entire system, making the recovery process even more of an uphill battle.
#9 What’s the impact on the U.S. economy if a powerful coronal mass ejection hits Earth?
Our modern world is massively dependent on electricity and radio communication. From the gizmos in our homes to the cars we zip around in, electricity is the lifeblood of our daily lives.
In a nutshell, the world as we know it would come crashing down without electricity. The fallout would echo across the global economy, and the aftershocks would be catastrophic. Just mull over the following hit list:
- Water: Treating water needs electricity, and transporting it relies on electric motor-driven pumps.
- Food: Farming, processing, transporting, and storing grub all call for electricity.
- Light: Illuminating streets, buildings, and homes would all suffer.
- Gadgets: Smartphones, laptops, home appliances, and other devices would all take a hit.
- Space equipment: Satellites and spacecraft in orbit would be toast, adding to the chaos.
- Internet: The internet would crash, grinding banking and financial systems that lean on computers and the internet to a halt.
- HVAC: Heating and cooling systems in homes and buildings would be in a bind.
- Healthcare: Most hospital gear runs on electricity, and pharmaceutical manufacturing needs electrical power.
Losing just these few items on the list would send the U.S. economy into a tailspin like never before. 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 steal the spotlight if we lose power for more than even a couple of weeks.
#10 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 easily take over a decade to get everything up and running again.
And that’s assuming no secondary problems pop up from the blackout. We’ve seen how a virus pandemic can wreak havoc on society due to bad sanitation, so it’s not hard to imagine other serious consequences that could crop up.
In short, electricity is the bedrock that keeps our modern society together. Without it, everything we know and rely on would fall apart.
#11 What happened at the end of the last ice age?
Picture this: at the end of the last ice age, temperatures skyrocketed in a flash. We’re talking about drastic climate transformations that happened within just a few short years. Crazy, right? In geological terms, climate transformations typically span hundreds to thousands of years, so this was some next-level climate chaos.
Now, some scientists think a comet might have smashed into Earth to cause all this madness. But, there’s no smoking gun—no crater or comet bits to prove it. So, what’s the deal?
Enter Robert M. Schoch, a science professor at Boston University, who believes a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun was the culprit. He says this solar outburst caused crazy floods by melting ice sheets over 10,000 feet high.
The cool thing is, there’s solid evidence to back up Schoch’s theory. Measurements from ice and sediment cores paint a vivid picture of intense solar activity back in the day. Plus, this idea fits with a time of massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. We know CMEs can cause that kind of chaos.
This wild theory might even explain the mysterious fall of the Lost City of Atlantis. Maybe there was an incredible civilization before the ancient Egyptians, but it was wiped out by a massive, sudden disaster.
#12 What can the U.S. do to better prepare for a powerful coronal mass ejection?
So, coronal mass ejections are pretty intense, and we’re not exactly ready for one. Imagine if a mega solar event like the one that potentially ended the last ice age hit Earth today—we’d be in big trouble!
But we can’t just sit around and do nothing. We’ve got to prepare for the Sun’s tantrums to avoid total chaos.
Now, I get it. Prepping for a massive solar storm isn’t cheap, and it’s hard to sell people on the idea when we haven’t faced one in modern times. Why spend all that cash when people are hungry and the threat seems far-fetched?
To be fair, NASA and the U.S. government are doing some work. They’ve got plans in place for a big geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) event. But they’re not thinking about a super-sized solar storm, so we’re still underprepared.
Here’s what I think we should do to get ready:
- 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. We don’t want to depend on other countries for vital stuff, just like we saw with masks and meds during the COVID-19 crisis. This level of outsourcing places the U.S. at the mercy of other nations for essential supplies.
- Retrofit and upgrade all components of 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. Better to have a plan now than to panic in the dark.
- Develop backup plans for the food and healthcare industries, so we don’t go into full-on chaos mode if a powerful GMD strikes.
Navigating the turmoil: Existing in a chaotic cosmos
Sometimes, we’re so caught up in our daily grind that we forget we’re zooming through the vastness of space. Our comfy Earth doesn’t have a cozy roof to protect us—just a thin layer of atmosphere separating us from the wild dangers of the cosmos.
Imagine this: we’re basically sitting ducks on a spinning rock, while the universe’s chaos stares down at us. Crazy, right?!
And here’s the kicker: a massive fireball, a.k.a. the Sun, powers our little planet from a mind-blowing 93 million miles away. This fiery giant could wipe out millions of years of evolution in a flash. Talk about a humbling reality check!
What’s more, the Sun couldn’t care less if the Super Bowl is tomorrow or whether AI’s in charge while we humans take a backseat. Our stellar neighbor will just keep on burning until its raging nuclear fusion engine finally calls it quits. And if that’s not enough of a reality check, consider this: the Sun was here before us, and it’s likely to stick around long after we’re gone.
So, with all this in mind, we’ve got to prep for a massive 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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Author Bio: Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for well over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, sports, fitness, and our history and future.