Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Solar SuperStorms

Can something as distant as the sun (averaging somewhere around 93-million miles away) thrust us into a survival situation? Only if you think living in the Dark Ages might be a problem.

I use the term dark ages with a double meaning, because not only would you literally end up living in the dark, but you would also end up living without any of the other conveniences provided by electricity. Kind of like they did back in the thirteenth century.

The problem is called a Solar Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and, as a result of a geomagnetic storm caused by solar flares, it can disrupt the power grid all over the world. Unlike a nuclear EMP attack that would be directed at a region by an enemy, a solar event will take out the whole globe.

So that brings us to today. As I write this, a coronal mass ejection (CME) is headed for earth, because the sun erupted with an X-class solar flare, the most powerful type of sun storm. A CME is a massive cloud of solar plasma that, when it reaches the earth, can knock down the GPS system, disrupt radio signals, and even kill the power grid. That would only be important to you if you happen to use electricity for anything.

Solar EMPs differ from nuclear EMPs in the type of emissions they release. While nuclear attacks emit E1 pulses that are very fast and take out electronics (like the ignition system in your car, computers, etc. as well as the power grid), solar events produce relatively slow E3 pulses that induce large currents that can even take out underground components of the power grid.

A solar storm in 1859 (before there was a power grid) destroyed the telegraph systems in the United States and in Europe. Experts believe that a storm of that magnitude today would disable the entire power grid. Community water supplies would not function. Gas stations would be unable to pump gas. Those on life support would die. Everything is so automated today that there would be instant shutdown of transportation, communication, and every other modern convenience.

In itself, that wouldn't be a problem. The folks back in the 13th century did just fine without electricity. And so could we — at least a few of us. But most people wouldn't have a clue what to do to get water, food, process their waste, stay warm (or cool), and take care of their daily needs.

Unlike a normal power outage that might last a few hours, or even a week or so after a hurricane or ice storm, an EMP would shut down the system for years. That's because of the damage it would do to the large grid transformers for which the U.S. has zero backups and zero production capability. They would have to come from overseas, and with transportation down, that would be a long-term problem. Twelve years is one estimate. So how would you do with a 12-year blackout?

While we're pondering that question, the coronal mass ejection is on its way toward us at a relatively slow 720,000 mph. Scientists are still watching and wondering. Nobody knows exactly what will happen. Even though this is an X-class flare, it's not the biggest one we've seen in the past. But not all the others ejected directly toward the Earth like this one has.

The sun has become very active in the past several months Scientists are saying that the sun has suddenly roused itself from an extended quiet period in its 11-year cycle of activity. This is Solar Cycle 24, and it's expected to peak around 2013.

The thing for us to take away from this discussion is that we need to be considering how we would live for several years without a refrigerator, lights, air conditioning, furnace, stove, phones, computers, TV, radio, automobiles, medicine, store-bought food, water, or the ability to flush a toilet. That's the short list.

Think on it.

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