Massive solar storm could wipe out human civilization in a single day

As society becomes more technologically dependent, the odds of a global debacle ensuing increase. This is particular true with respect to coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which have the potential to plunge humanity into the dark ages over night.

A CME occurs whenever an explosion on the sun causes part of its corona to disattach. CMEs are slow-moving, taking up to 12 hours to reach Earth. In contrast, solar flares are brief eruptions on the sun associated with sun spots. They send a cloud of radiation zipping towards Earth responsible for the aurora borealis. The negative and positive charged particles that constitute the cloud split when they come in contact with Earth’s magnetic field, spiral down the poles and cause a glow. Although solar flares can disrupt satellite communications, CMEs are by far the most dangerous type of space storm to scourge the planet.(1)

Last big one in 1859

CMEs are shot out directly from the sun. Fortunately, the odds of CME being directed towards Earth are low. Every once in a while, however, a CME collides with the planet. The last time a CME bombarded Earth was in 1859, which was so strong it engulfed telegraph machines with fire. The northern lights stretched as far south as Cuba during the incident.(2)

If a CME were to strike the planet like the one that occurred in 1859, the results would be devastating. Unlike the world of 1859, the world today is dependent upon an interconnected web of satellites. A CME directed towards Earth would first impact NASA’s ACE satellite, which is located an estimated 1 million miles in front of Earth. Within 30 minutes to an hour, hell fire would rain from above and spark a geomagnetic storm. That’s when solar storms would lay waste to the power grids.(1)

Human society is far more dependent on electricity than it was in 1859. Ground currents kindled by geomagnetic storms would melt the copper winding of transformers, assuring massive power outages in major cities. The darkness wouldn’t be bound to lights, however. Heat and air conditioners, the internet, GPS, gas pumps and sewage would come to a grinding halt. In an era when people cannot live without their cell phones for an hour, a society suddenly stripped of electrical power would assure absolute chaos.(2)

The National Academy of Sciences reports that the economic impact that a CME may have on the planet could exceed $2 trillion. To put this into perspective, that’s 20 times more expensive than the costs of Hurricane Katrina.(1)

Science fiction meets reality

This is not science fiction. The threat of a CME is real. The odds that a CME will strike Earth each year is less than 1 percent. Nevertheless, this likelihood increases with time. In fact, in 2012, a massive CME similar to the one that occurred in 1859 intersected with Earth’s orbit, narrowly missing the planet. Had the CME struck Earth, we would still be cleaning up the pieces.(2)

What is ironic is that third-world countries, where electricity and power are scarce, are better prepared for a CME than developed countries. Developed countries, therefore, can take note of the living practices of third-world countries in preparation for a CME.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has attempted assemble a team to look at different ways to respond to a major disaster. Their are plenty of things you can do to prepare for a CME, however. As with any disaster, make sure to have an emergency kit, stock up on gasoline, store extra batteries and have a plentiful supply of food. By knowing how to live off the grid, you’ll be prepared to live, well, off the grid.

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