We see a raging fireball every day floating in the sky, glowing brightly. But, we never stop to think of the power of our Sun. What if a powerful coronal mass ejection hit Earth?
The impact could unravel everything we view as normal in life today. Without a doubt, the impact would be devasting.
Why analyze a powerful coronal mass ejection?
Many of us on Earth today live in a bubble. We think life, as we know it today, will always remain as it is.
Our history tells another story. We live in a chaotic universe with life roped on for the ride.
With the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about life. How this invisible to the eye virus brought all the world’s economies to their knees.
The coronavirus froze economies in a week’s time. But now, what if a coronal mass ejection hit Earth?
To answer this question, I want to focus on a powerful coronal mass ejection. Many of the articles I’ve read on this subject, use past recent events in their analysis. Then, they conclude life will go on unimpacted.
I want to push the envelope. I want to peek into an extreme edge case event that very well could happen one day. To that end, I want to focus on how it would affect the power grids in the United States.
To point out, the U.S. did not properly prepare for a virus outbreak. This contrary to what the media and government at one point wanted us to believe.
Looking back, the U.S. simply wasn’t ready. This became evident with our slow response time, and lack of testing and supplies.
By the same token, I fear the impact of a powerful coronal mass ejection. I know we’re not prepared.
#1 What is a coronal mass ejection?
The quick answer: a large eruption of magnetized plasma from the surface of the Sun.
But, let’s dive deeper. We can better appreciate the randomness and destructive force of coronal mass ejections.
First, think of the Sun as a huge hot ball of glowing gas and plasma. On this ball, a lot goes on.
Now, think of New York City. The city that never sleeps. No matter the time of day, it’s always busy.
In the same way, the Sun also never sleeps. Inside the Sun, the temperature as you would guess is very high.
As a result, positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons constantly move. This makes up the plasma in the Sun.
This always moving plasma creates magnetic fields. The magnetic field lines then shift, tangle, twist and reconnect causing disruption.
This activity astronomers think leads to sudden explosions of energy. In particular, expanding bubbles of plasma build up.
These bubbles then drive out from the Sun with magnetic fields and can erupt with solar flares.
To better visualize, think of a tree branch that you bend and bend some more. As you apply more force to bend the branch, it’ll eventually snap.
At this moment, like a bullet from a rifle, the charged particles will violently fire out from the sun. If the Earth falls inside the scope of this refile, it’ll get hit.
You can now visualize the randomness of coronal mass ejections. It’s not straightforward to predict when one will strike Earth.
#2 How does a coronal mass ejection affect Earth?
I’m going to compare Earth to an alternating current generator to explain. I’ve broken my explanation into five simple parts.
Part #1: At a hydroelectric plant, a turbine spins from the force of moving water. A generator connected to the turbine then converts mechanical energy into electrical energy.
In short, the turbine makes copper wire in the generator spin around large magnets. This produces electricity. Then, the faster the coil of wire spins, the greater current the generator will produce.
We refer to this as Faraday’s law of induction. So, a changing magnetic field generates an electrical current in a conductor.
Part #2: The sun will erupt with a coronal mass ejection. Then, soon thereafter magnetized plasma will slam into Earth’s magnetic field.
We call this event a Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD).
Part #3: This collision will bend Earth’s magnetic field. In some instances, this collision can overwhelm the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth will then remain exposed.
As a result, geoelectric fields will form in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Part #4: On Earth, thousands of miles of low resistance transmission lines exist. Also, inside Earth, many low resistance manmade ground wires exist.
Now, think of all these as the wires in our generator from Part #1. Each of these wires acts like a geomagnetic antenna.
Part #5: With the change in Earth’s magnetic field, the wires from Part #4 will have currents induced into them. We call this geomagnetically induced currents (GIC).
You can now see how unwanted currents can easily flow through power grids.
Looking deeper into GIC
To point out, the Earth’s magnetic field changes slowly from GMD events. In other words, Earth’s magnetic field will almost always be non-time-varying.
This is because an almost uniform stream of charged particles hit Earth. Also, these charged particles travel from the Sun to Earth at almost the same speed.
Of course, there will be peaks of pulses of varying duration from minutes to hours. In one 5-minute interval, the density of charged particles over Earth may increase. In the next several minutes the density of charged particles may decrease. By and large, it’s fairly uniform.
As a result, the induced current is almost always a quasi direct current (DC). This quasi direct current measures in frequency between 0.1 to 0.001 Hz according to research. Keep in mind, a pure direct current has a frequency of zero as the name implies.
Important note: static magnetic fields don’t change intensity or direction over time. So, they have a frequency of 0 Hz. For this reason, the Earth’s magnetic field without a GMD event is a static field.
Further, 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. the electricity changes direction with a frequency of 60 cycles per second or 60 Hz. Given that, the electromagnetic field changes its orientation 60 times every second.
Now, the change in Earth’s magnetic field creates electric fields. According to 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. The total cross-sectional area of the line loop and ground return is large.
As a result, these lines capture more of the changing magnetic field as the field travels over them. Thus, these lines will have large currents induced into them. Even more so, if the lines are properly oriented in the direction of the changing magnetic field.
Important note: I believe the NERC listed geoelectric field values are very low. Earth can and will experience a much more powerful GMD event in the future. I will discuss this more in-depth in later sections.
Thomas Gold’s Studies
To dive even deeper, let’s switch our focus to Thomas Gold. He was an astrophysicist and professor at Cornell University. He conducted amazing work in the 1960s on solar weather.
Professor Gold studied powerful coronal mass ejections. He found they could cause huge lightning storms across the globe at once. These storms could then start fires in all corners of the world.
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.
Tectonic plates on the verge of moving could trigger earlier due to a GMD event. Even more, Earth’s volcanic activity could increase following the same logic.
It’s important to realize, our Sun is a star. Stars are violent exploding balls of gas.
Like everything in the universe, everything goes through a time of instability. It’s ignorant of us humans to think the Sun will always remain silent so we can lead comfortable lives.
#3 What are the chances of a coronal mass ejection hitting Earth?
In 1859, a powerful storm of charged particles slammed into Earth’s atmosphere. This coronal mass ejection, named the Carrington Event, became the first powerful solar storm recorded.
Before the event, dark spots, or sunspots as we call them today, were observed on the surface of the Sun. Soon thereafter, an ejection of billions of tons of charged particles rocketed towards Earth.
This event compromised Earth’s magnetic field, resulting in:
- Shorted telegraph wires across all Northern Europe and America
- Some telegraph systems still operating despite losing connection to the power grid
- Widespread fires
Over a century later in 1989, a large coronal mass ejection hit Quebec and Northeast America. Some say this GMD event was more powerful than the Carrington Event.
Now keep in mind, both these events were major from our perspective as humans. But, from an astrophysical lens, they’re small.
That said, humans have limited data on large coronal mass ejections. We’ve only been collecting good data for the past half-century.
Right now, we predict every 200 or so years, Earth will experience a large hit like the Carrington Event. But, no one knows when an even larger event could strike.
#4 How much warning time do we have?
Our technology in monitoring the Sun’s activity is improving. We collect data on solar winds, changes in the Sun’s magnetic field, and so much more.
NASA has satellites that monitor the Sun’s activity. One of these satellites is parked at Lagrange point L1, called ‘Advanced Composition Explorer’ (ACE). It’s roughly a distance of 870,000 miles from Earth.
At these Lagrange points, we can park an object indefinitely and it will not move. The benefit is, at L1 we have a clear and close view of the Sun. This gives us a greater advanced warning of a possible solar event.
To that end, according to The Astrophysical Journal, we’ll have a 26.4 ±15.3 hour warning for a normal event.
But, for an extreme event, we may only have a 20-minute warning. This according to the Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate.
All things considered, with the Sun, there’s a lot we don’t know. We can’t count on even our best tracking equipment, software simulations, and satellites. We may still miss the early detection of a powerful outburst from the Sun.
#5 How to safeguard Earth from a powerful coronal mass ejection?
Preparation is key. Today, we can do a lot to protect power grids. Let’s go over some of the safeguards.
Shed loads or shut off the power grid
With an advance warning, we could shed loads from the power grid. Also, take our critical electrical equipment offline.
This would help protect large power transformers. To explain, when too much current enters the core of a transformer, it’ll saturate.
Given that, manufacturers design transformers to only carry a set amount of current. When the current goes too high, the magnetic field will spread from the transformer core into the surrounding areas.
This can then overheat all components of a transformer. At this point, the transformer core will have surpassed its max magnetic flux capabilities.
For example, random currents will flow in the input and output wires. If a transformer doesn’t immediately fail, it’ll degrade from wires and insulation overheating. Then weeks or months later it’ll fail.
So, by shedding loads, we’d reduce the burden placed on a transformer. The transformer can then more safely absorb current from a coronal mass ejection.
Now, to pull this off, grid operators need proper training to take action in an hour’s notice. This would replace long-term disaster with short-term devastation.
Upgrade protective relays
Upgrading outdated and aged protective relays in power grids. To understand this scenario, let’s discuss transformers more in-depth.
When a transformer core saturates, the current and voltage waveforms become distorted. Sometimes they look nothing like a normal sinusoidal waveform in an AC circuit.
In short, protective relays can trip in non-conventional ways. More specifically, old type electromagnetic relays can’t properly monitor these distorted waveforms. So, these relays may trip early or late.
Now, by using smart modern digital relays, we can program them to more accurately react to these situations. They’ll better signal a circuit breaker to open to protect against unwanted currents.
This way, we’d isolate all sensitive parts of an electrical grid. As a result, most expensive electrical equipment could go unaffected.
DC blocking devices
Many DC blocking devices exist. These devices work to block quasi-DC flow in AC systems from GMD events. They’re typically used for transformers. These devices 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
For example, a capacitor only allows AC flow. So, they’re used to block the quasi-DC flow from a GMD event in a transformer’s neutral to ground connection.
#6 Problems with today’s safeguards
NASA tells us not to worry about coronal mass ejections as they’ll provide an early warning.
“Similarly, scientists at NASA and NOAA give warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators and airline pilots before a CME comes to Earth so that these groups can take proper precautions.”
I understand NASA’s concern. Their equipment in space is sensitive to constant solar activity.
Thus, they need to closely monitor solar activity. On that note, I know they’re doing a lot using past data as a benchmark to protect Earth.
But, my focus remains on powerful solar storms. In this case, NASA may not even have the ability to help.
Keep in mind, the magnitude of these GMD events are difficult to predict. So, we don’t want to shut down power grids unless we absolutely need to. A false alarm could cost billions or even trillions of dollars.
To that end, the problem becomes, for major solar events we will not have much warning. We can’t flip one switch to instantly safeguard all power grids in the U.S.
Even more, we don’t have enough data on these events because they’re so rare. We can’t assume we’ve thought of every edge case on how an event would unfold.
To point out, our technology has been improving year after year. But, too many variables exist that we don’t have data over. There’s so much we don’t understand about the Sun.
So, this becomes a huge challenge. Unfortunately, we can’t accurately model global magnetospheric and ionospheric changes from a sun outburst.
With that said, I’m going to go over the issues with some of the safeguards we’ve discussed in Section #4.
Sun monitoring satellites
A sunspot alone will not give us the entire story if a coronal mass ejection will soon come our way.
Next, a lot of the satellites we have in space are old and not in optimal condition. Plus, satellites can’t instantly identify Electric and Magnetic Field (EMF) effects from coronal mass ejections.
The EMF effects need to strike a monitoring device that can first detect them. Given most of these devices are in Earths’ orbit, not counting the ones at Lagrange points, the warning time may not be enough.
These relays will experience additional relay torque from harmonics induced by the quasi-DC flow from GMD events. Thus, this can cause them to not properly trip.
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 on when to trip.
Given that, I see these relays installed all across California. I don’t see owners replacing them anytime soon either.
By and large, many will not properly operate in non-ideal situations. Their limited mechanical operation and age will become points of failure. Some of these devices in the field today are 50 years old.
Then outside of the U.S., in less modern countries, these relays are even more common to find.
These digital operating devices have components that age like any other device. This can make the operating accuracy drift by 10% to 15%.
Then, the programming comes into question. For example, how is the Root Mean Square (RMS) value calculated for the voltage waveform?
Then, what’s the accuracy given a lot of distortion? This is important since GIC flow can cause a lot of waveform distortion.
To prevent misoperation, these relays need sophisticated algorithms. As we saw with electromechanical relays, harmonics can cause a lot of problems.
So, microprocessor relays need proper measurement algorithms. This allows them to detect the fundamental frequency between all the harmonics.
Next, these relays have set time delays. After their set time delay, they trigger circuit breakers to open.
Circuit breakers then have operating times too. None of these devices operate instantly.
All in all, typically it would take 8 cycles or 0.13 seconds for a segment of the power grid to disconnect. Keep in mind, the total operating time also depends on the designed protection scheme. Every application uses a varied protection scheme.
That said, I’ve seen plenty of cases where the operating time is much greater than 0.13 seconds. This doesn’t even include the age factor from wear and tear.
So, with enough operation delay, electrical equipment can be damaged.
Further, a set standard doesn’t exist for newly installed protection components. Both in the relay model selection and the relay trip settings.
Finally, given the lack of standards for the upkeep of these devices, many unknowns exist. Who’s to say new microprocessor relays always operate better than old electromagnetic relays?
Important note: neither microprocessor nor electromagnetic relays will monitor currents that enter transformers at the neutral to ground connection. This connection point is where most of the power grid damage will come from.
With an oncoming powerful GMD event, control room operators will scramble. We saw how we dealt with COVID-19 with weeks of advance warning.
With a powerful coronal mass ejection, we may only have hours of warning. Secondly, important to realize, not all personalities can deal with high stress.
Above all, I don’t see the proper training in place to handle a powerful coronal mass ejection. I’ve spoken with many people in the electrical field, and the proper training is not where it should be.
To further drive the point home, look again at how the U.S. responded to COVID-19.
We had and have much more invested in virus pandemics because of SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and so on. Yet, the response in the U.S. to the COVID-19 pandemic was slow and far from optimal.
DC blocking systems
Let’s go over the shortcomings of each:
Disconnect at the neutral to ground connection: we need an advanced warning to flip the switch. That’s a problem of its own.
Now, if we leave the switch open, it’ll cause voltage transients and problems with ground fault detection. Also, it could 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. In other words, an inductor wouldn’t help.
Resistor at the neutral to ground connection: they will reduce GIC flow. But, they’ll also reduce ground fault protection sensitivity.
Capacitor at the neutral to ground connection: they will completely block GIC flow. But, they may cause ferroresonance, heating, problems in equipment.
Capacitor with by-pass at the neutral to ground connection: this actually is 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 to be the most promising device from all the options.
All in all, the cost is a huge factor too in installing each of these devices.
Important to realize, the U.S. power grids are the world’s largest machines. The cost to install these devices everywhere is very expensive.
Plus, cities and counties have greater electrical problems to deal with today. The aging power grids in the U.S. require a lot of attention as it is. How can we plan for the future, when we have so many problems on our plate today?
Finally, I’ve seen many transformers over the years. I rarely see any of these DC blocking devices installed. Frankly, I rarely hear the subject even discussed.
#7 My fear from a powerful coronal mass ejection
With all I’ve discussed so far, I believe the U.S. power grid is well protected from what most view as an extreme GMD event. An event like the Carrington Event.
But again, my focus is on an outlier GMD event of epic proportions. An event that I believe happened not too long ago in Earth’s history. I’ll discuss this in greater detail in Section #10.
That said, my primary fear is with power transformer damage from low-frequency high magnitude currents.
Transformers step up and step down voltages. From voltages as high as 500,000 volts down to 120 volts. So, without transformers, life, as we know would instantly change.
Let’s now rewind back to coronal mass ejections. According to NERC, the created geoelectric fields from a violent GMD event will be small in magnitude. So in return, the quasi direct currents will be small in magnitude.
Now, I don’t agree with NERC. We’ve only been collecting good data on the Sun for less than a century. That’s a blink of an eye in the Sun’s life.
What does this now mean? the Sun can shoot out much more charged particles than we imagine. As a result, the created geoelectric fields on Earth will be much stronger. Thus, the quasi direct currents will be larger in magnitude.
Next, we’ll refer to these low-frequency high magnitude currents as GIC. The GIC flows into transformers from the neutral to ground connections.
The GIC will then superimpose over the 60 Hz transformer frequencies.
This superimposition will then cause a transformer’s frequency to drop. A transformer’s electrical waveforms at this point can become unrecognizable. Undoubtedly, this is where the problems begin.
Keep in mind, the GIC flow also acts as an offset. It’ll cause an additional magnetic flux in the transformer core. Thus, it will push the AC flux waveform up closer to saturation in one half-cycle.
Important note: transformers are designed to only operate in the linear region of their magnetizing characteristics as dictated by the 60 Hz frequency. Given that, the GIC flow shifts a transformer’s operating point outside of the linear region.
So, the GIC flow can saturate the magnetic core of a transformer. This is commonly referred to as half-cycle saturation.
Once saturated, the magnetic circuit segment of a transformer will not be able to carry any extra magnetic field. As a result, a transformer will behave non-linearly. This leads to:
- Need for reactive power compensation
Let’s focus on heating. A transformer’s rating will dictate how much current can flow through its copper windings. If too much current flows, losses in the windings will increase fast.
Copper losses are the wastage of 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 other words, the heat produced by the current through the windings.
At this point, the entire transformer will begin to overheat. This includes the oil, windings, containment, insulation system, and everything else.
Important note: with GIC flow, many things happen at once inside of a transformer. It’s not a domino effect. That said, I’m going to piece together several of the major elements with how transformer damage happens.
To better understand, let’s look at the 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.
Reconfiguring the EMF equation we get:
Now, let’s put the puzzle pieces together for our transformer:
We first inject low-frequency high magnitude currents into the transformer. We do this from the neutral to ground connection.
This becomes our GIC flow from a coronal mass ejection. Assume the voltage remains constant.
Next, from the GIC flow, the frequency (f) will decrease as we learned. As a result, the flux volume (Φm) in the transformer core will increase as the equation shows.
Since the transformer core area is fixed, the flux density increases. The operating flux density for transformers is typically 1.7T. So, when the flux density goes above 1.7T, a transformer’s core losses will no longer remain linear.
Rather, the losses increase rapidly. The transformer core can then no longer contain the flux. As a result, the flux overflows into all parts of the transformer.
This creates overheating from eddy losses. The transformer can then quickly fail.
Important note: certain types of transformers are more vulnerable to this internal heating. For example, a three-phase autotransformer bank could be more vulnerable.
Inductive reactance () is the opposition to the flow of current like resistance. Except the opposition is sourced from an inductor and not a resistor. So, the higher the value of , the less current will flow.
The inductive reactance equation:
Where ‘L’ is the reactance of a coil of wire. In our case, the transformer’s coil of wire.
As the frequency (f) decreases from GIC flow, the also decreases. This means more current can flow in the transformer’s windings.
So, the GIC flow can now 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 in the equation. Thus, . This shows us how GIC flow will travel unhindered inside of a transformer.
Volts per hertz ratio
Important to realize, the problem is not so much the under frequency. But, the volts per hertz ratio. We’ll see how the inductive reactance we discussed also plays a role.
A transformer will saturate and overheat when the volts per hertz ratio increases. In our case, the frequency decreases from the GIC flow.
As a result, the magnetizing current increases. In other words, too much current will flow in a transformer’s windings.
This gives you another perspective on how the flux density increases through increased GIC flow.
Let’s go over Ohm’s Law for inductive reactance to better understand:
I = current
V = voltage
f = frequency
L = inductance
You can see as the ratio between voltage and frequency grows, the current will increase. Now, if we could somehow decrease the voltage, proportional to the frequency, we could avoid a lot of the transformer damage. In short, a sweet spot ratio between voltage and frequency exists, where a transformer operates unharmed
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.
In my edge case analysis though, the transformer damage would still happen. This is because of the high current magnitude from the GIC.
Can we protect against this?
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 will not 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. But, with a powerful coronal mass ejection, it will not make a difference.
I believe the best future option is to use smart high voltage power electronics. Using the semiconductor switch at the neutral to ground connection that we discussed in Section #5.
This option will instantly block high magnitude GIC flow. The blocking will be automatic and without any of the negative effects.
In the meantime, installing neutral to ground switches would certainly help. In advance of a GMD event, we would temporarily open the neutral to ground switch.
This would prevent a lot of transformer damage if we can time it right. Again, this is not something I commonly find installed in the field today.
#8 What type of destruction could a powerful coronal mass ejection cause?
The destruction could be unimaginable.
In the U.S. the greatest problems I foresee are with large power transformers. In developing nations, the problems would be devasting on many fronts.
These developing nations don’t have standardized electrical designs and have outdated protective devices. So, the damage would be unworldly.
But, let’s focus on large power transformers.
Large Power Transformers
Large power transformers can fail from unwanted geomagnetic induced currents as we learned. As a result, we would lose power to parts of the grid.
Now, these transformers you can’t simply go buy at a local yard. Most every large power transformer that’s produced is already bought. Production just keeps up with demand.
This is due to their great cost and because they’re customized for every client’s needs. For this reason, I rarely see large backup power transformers sitting idle at a site.
What’s more, the manufacturing time takes 12 or so months in nondistressed times. Also considering, the manufacturing plants all have locations outside of the U.S.
To that end, imagine the chaos if the following unfolds:
- The entire world needs large power transformers manufactured at once. The 12 months of lead time could turn into several years or more.
- The manufacturing facilities lose power. How would they then even manufacture transformers?
On top of this all, shipping large power transformers from overseas takes months. To point out also, highways need to close to transport these massive units over state lines.
Restarting the Power Grid
The power grid doesn’t have a single switch to flip it on and off. It requires a huge coordinated effort to black start the power grid. It could take a week to months depending on the severity of the GMD event.
This is all considering the damage to equipment is minimal.
#9 What’s the impact on the U.S. economy if a powerful coronal mass ejection hit Earth?
The modern world today heavily relies on electricity and radio communication. Think of all your home appliances, computers, cars, food, and so much more.
In short, a large part of the world would crumble. The impact would ripple through the world’s economies. To illustrate, I put together a short impact list:
- Drinking water: water treatment requires electricity. Also, the transportation of water requires electric motor driven pumps.
- Wastewater: cleaning wastewater. Think of the waste from your toilet. Also, a network of sewage pumps makes the wastewater system.
- Food: farming, processing, transporting, and storing food.
- Light: powering street, building, and home lights.
- Hardware: smartphones, laptops, home appliances, and so on.
- Space equipment: satellites and spacecraft in orbit. These pieces of equipment need electricity in manufacturing and for maintenance on Earth. Especially, since they would certainly be damaged from a powerful coronal mass ejection.
- Internet: the internet would go down. As a result, banking would halt. Our financial system completely relies on computers and the internet today.
- HVAC: heating and cooling of homes and buildings.
- Healthcare: most equipment in hospitals is electrically powered. Also, 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?
Given the state of today’s power grid, I would say easily over a decade. The U.S. power grid today is very old as it is.
Important to realize, this assumes no secondary problems arise from a blackout. For example, a virus pandemic due to bad sanitation.
In short, electricity is the foundation that holds together today’s society. Without it, everything we as humans know would unravel.
#10 The end of the last ice age
Between 11,000 to 15,000 years ago, Earth’s climate had large swings. This was about the time when the last ice age ended.
The temperature was very cold, then began to warm. Then suddenly the temperature cooled again before the final warming period.
These temperature swings were sudden and large. Research shows this all happened within a matter of several years.
Geologically speaking, changes in climate unfold in hundreds and thousands of years. So, changes in several years are unheard of.
For this reason, scientists have hypothesized a comet may have struck Earth. But, we’ve found no comet impact evidence. For example, a crater or pieces of a comet haven’t been found.
Instead, Robert M. Schoch, a Professor of Natural Science at Boston University, holds a different theory. He believes the sudden climate change came from a powerful coronal mass ejection.
This event was then followed by massive floods from 10,000 plus foot high ice sheets melting.
In fact, research and gathered data support this theory too. Proxy indicators from isotype measurements of ice and sediment cores give us a lens into past solar activity.
This event all coincides with many large earthquakes that took place in this period of time too. Then followed up with heavy volcanic activity.
As we learned, coronal mass ejections can cause earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Not to mention, this theory may capture the fall of the Lost City of Atlantis. Maybe a great civilization existed before the ancient Egyptians. The city then disappeared because of a sudden cataclysmic natural disaster.
#11 What can the U.S. do to better prepare for a powerful coronal mass ejection?
There’s so much we don’t know about this natural disaster. Also, if a major event that possibly ended the last ice age hit Earth today, I don’t think there’s much we could do.
Still, we need to prepare for varying degrees of outbursts from the Sun. There’s so much more we still can do.
One problem stems from strong mitigation plans being too costly for states to act on today. Especially, given we haven’t experienced a major event in modern history.
For this reason, we don’t respect or fear this possible event. So the logic becomes, why fund these projects for a pie in the sky GMD event?
Undeniably, I know NASA and the U.S. government have done a lot to protect against what they think to be large GMD events. But, they’re not considering a powerful outburst from the Sun. As a result, the mitigation plans in place today are simply insufficient.
All in all, we don’t have our finger on the pulse of this possible catastrophe. That said, my mitigation suggestions include:
- Install neutral to ground switches for power transformers.
- Increase research funding for power electronic switches at neutral to ground connections for transformers.
- Bring large power transformer manufacturing facilities to America. No different than the issue of manufacturing masks, gloves, pharmaceuticals, and so in China before the COVID-19 outbreak. This level of outsourcing puts the U.S. at the mercy of other nations for essential supplies.
- Retrofit and upgrade all parts of aging power grids.
- Install real-time GIC monitors on power transformers.
- Better standardize design models for all segments of power grids. This begins with utilities adopting set standards.
- Properly train grid operators for this edge case GMD event.
- Create a plan of action on what to do if a large percentage of power transformers instantly fail. It’s better to brainstorm now than to scramble in the middle of a blackout.
- Create loss of power operational plans for the food and healthcare industries. Planning ahead will prevent mass chaos from a powerful GMD event.
Living in a chaotic universe
We get so consumed in our daily lives, that we forget we’re traveling in open space. The Earth we stand on doesn’t have a roof over our heads, protecting us.
We’re exposed on a spinning rock, with the chaos of the universe staring down on us.
Not to mention, a massive fireball powers our tiny planet from 93 million miles away. What’s more, this ball of fire can end millions of years of evolution in the snap of a finger. I find this to be the biggest dose of humble pie.
For this reason, we need to prepare ourselves for a powerful coronal mass ejection. At the very least, have a better plan of action in place.
We need to realize, the Sun doesn’t care if the Superbowl is tomorrow. Or, if artificial intelligence runs the world with humans taking a back seat.
The Sun will simply do what it has done for billions of years. It’ll burn until its raging nuclear fusion engine can’t burn anymore.
To that end, the universe existed before humans, and more than likely it’ll exist long after humans. We need to simply better prepare for an event that one day will strike. This way, we can ensure all human progress isn’t pushed back decades or more.
If a powerful coronal mass ejection hit Earth, do you think life forever would change? Do you fear coronal mass ejections, or do you think the fear is overblown?
Featured Image Photo Credit: NASA/SDO (AIA)
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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 over a decade 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, and our history and future.