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The Practical Prepper
You may have noticed that there have recently been more stories about Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) in the news lately. In some ways, they present a threat similar to an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). A main difference is that EMPs are manmade, whereas CMEs are a natural phenomenon and can occur at any time.
So what is a CME? How do we know about them? What kind of threat do they represent? Read on:
Solar activity is basically separated into four main components, any of which can impact Earth if conditions are right:
CMEs are large clouds of plasma and magnetic fields that erupt from the Sun. They can erupt in any direction, but only when the cloud is aimed at Earth will it potentially have any effect. Here's a good description from the NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center's Primer on Space Weather:
The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields. Where these fields are closed, often above sunspot groups, the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections. A large CME can contain 1016 grams (ten billion tons) of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour in a spectacular explosion. Solar material streaks out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. CMEs are sometimes associated with flares but usually occur independently.
These geomagnetic storms are what have an impact here on Earth, and can really cause problems. Most commonly, the storms result in auroras (i.e., the "Aurora Borealis" in the Northern hemisphere and the "Aurora Australis" in the Southern hemisphere) being seen further south than normal.
However, geomagnetic storms can also disrupt communications or navigation systems. The storms can also heat the Earth's atmosphere, causing it to expand. This causes satellites to experience more drag in the (slightly) denser atmosphere, causing them to change course. (This is what happened to Skylab in 1979.)
But, the most damaging (and most frightening) effect that can be produced is damage to the electrical power grid. The geomagnetic storm can induce electrical currents in the long power transmission lines, which can damage transformers. And, it's not just one or two transformers; it can happen across a wider area.
This can also lead to a cascading power failure, especially if the event occurs in a period of higher demand for electricity (e.g., during peak power periods during very cold or hot weather). A widespread power outage can also lead to permanent damage to high-voltage breakers, transformers, and generation plants too.
All this can happen quickly, without enough time to recognize that it's happening and try to avoid it. However, when the damage is done, it can be catastrophic. A very strong storm could cause a massive amount of damage to power grid components. While utility companies have some spare transformers ready to replace those that become damaged, it'd be unlikely that there would be enough spares. In addition, some very large transformers are no longer made in the United States and must be imported from overseas, and they can take many months to produce just one.
According to a 1997 article by the American Geophysical Union, a widespread blackout could last days. The article also mentions that Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimated that a widespread blackout in the northeastern United States from a geomagnetic storm event could cost billions of dollars in lost revenue (aside from the cost to repair the damage). That estimate could be optimistic.
The most severe geomagnetic storm on record happened on September 1, 1859. Popularly known as the Carrington event, it's named after Richard Carrington, one of England's foremost solar astronomers, who witnessed and recorded the event. The storm caused telegraph systems all over the Northern hemisphere to fail and even shocked some telegraph operators. Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire.
As cited on NASA's page on the Social and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather:
"A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions," the [National Academy of Sciences] report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.
In summary, this means that a CME could produce a geomagnetic storm that could knock out the power grid for days or months… or even years in a severe enough event. The loss of electricity will bring much of our modern American lifestyle to a complete standstill. Commerce would falter and stop, stores would empty, transportation would stop, and things could get pretty desperate for a while. That's all the more reason to be as prepared and self-reliant as you can be. No doubt the power would come back on, but you need to be able to survive until that time.
If you'd like to find out more about CMEs (and EMPs), we have several posts on Self-Reliant Info that will provide more information. And, of course, the other posts there (and here on The Practical Prepper) will help you get prepared!
Believing that preparedness and self-reliance are key to individual freedom, Atticus Freeman is the founder of the Self-Reliant Info blog, in addition to authoring The Practical Prepper weekly blog here on Farm Dreams. Thanks for reading!
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