What is a CME, and why should you care about it?

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:

  1. Solar flares
  2. Coronal Mass Ejections
  3. High-speed solar wind
  4. Solar energetic particles

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.

As the CME moves through the interplanetary medium (the plasma-like material that fills the solar system), it can create a disturbance known as a geomagnetic storm.

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! 



Views: 561

Tags: CME, failure, flare, geomagnetic, outage, power, solar, space, storm, weather

Comment by Herbert Arce on April 25, 2012 at 9:47pm

Out of curiosity, do these cme's also cause a quick drain on batteries? In recent days, I have had to go out and purchase new rechargeable batteries for my phones and cordless tools because all of a sudden they will not hold a charge. All at the same time. The phone batteries were new (a few months old) The power tool batteries are what bothers me the most, as these cost me about 30 bucks each. What are your thoughts on this?

Comment by Atticus Freeman on April 27, 2012 at 11:56pm

Hi Herbert, thanks for commenting! So far as I know, what you're experiencing wouldn't be the result of a CME. Firstly, I've never seen anything that indicates that a CME would affect a battery like that. Plus, I'd think that a CME strong enough to impact your batteries would've had a far-reaching effect in the counties around you. Without knowing more, it's difficult to say what might be causing all of your batteries to drain. Is it only your rechargeable batteries that seem to be affected? Are all of your rechargeable batteries of the same type? (E.g., NiMH, NiCad, Li-ion)

Comment by Mary Schmidtke on April 28, 2012 at 11:53am

I have often wondered if we need to dewire our homes or face them burning down in a large CME.  I have read accounts of the Carrington event 9-1-59.  The telegraph wire all had to be restrung, it was fried.  If it can fry telegraph wire what will it do to common household wiring.  Could it light our houses on fire?  This is a fire department mega disaster. Can you imagine thousands of homes on fire at one time?   Has any research been done "in lab" on this?  I am read one of Patrick Geryl"s books on this now, How to survive 2012.  One night years ago I was watching a lighting storm out of a large skylight I had in that house.  It is amazing how much lighting is right over our heads, beautiful but deadly.  A doughnut pattern formed in the sky while I watched.  It was formed by a thousand little crackles of lighting and as I watched,it contracted to a point and came right at me.  The lighting bolt hit the electric fencer in the backyard, the T.V antenna, satellite dish and oooh yes the farm well.  The electricity all met at the circuit breaker box in the basement.  Every outlet in the house snapped so loud and sparked.  My husband wakes out of a dead sleep yelling, "Hit the floor.".  I was totally flash blind, as I saw the whole thing.  And the house is smelling like smoke.  Thanks to prepping, fire extinguishers for electrical fires were on hand and our extremely remote home did not burn down.  Later, when they pulled the well pump and looked at the wire, the insulation was blown/burned right off in a FLASH.  Appliances were toast.  Circuit breaker box -  burnt toast.  I count myself lucky.  I lived and got my sight back, children, husband, livestock all survived---Wiser.  I am really interested in what we would have to do to our houses to survive a CME and the followup mega lighting.  Do or can we make/invent a Faraday house?  I have not seen this on the Preppers yet.  Feed back wanted.  Kick out some ideas please.

Comment by Herbert Arce on April 28, 2012 at 3:47pm

The batteries were varied; some NiMH, and some Li ions; I've never seen anything like it!  I haven't tried any 'disposables', because I'm usually cheap! Since then, I've tried recharging some of the 18v batteries, and these only hold a charge for a few minutes. I keep the batteries on a charger, since like I said, I'm cheap, so I also don't think there was a power surge that caused the problem. In fact, the rechargables for my kids' video games I recharge with a solar charger. I'll keep asking around, and see if any of the neighbeors have experienced this recently also.

Comment by Mary Schmidtke on April 28, 2012 at 7:42pm

Food for thought.  You probably did the experiment in school where you put a bar magnet under a piece of plastic and sprinkled some Iron filings on it, tapped the sides a little and the filings would form a pattern so you could see the invisible magnetic field.  Well I have seen the invisible magnetic field of the sun --- really!  In 1973 I traveled for a class to Africa to see the eclipse.  I had wonderful instructors: Neil Armstrong, Scott Carpenter, Issac Asimov, Dr. Hynek and sooo many others but nothing can top seeing a total eclipse.  What I came away from totality with was how close we are to the sun. During totality the sky took on an iridescent blue color with white lines extending out from the afternoon fully eclipsed sun.  These whisps of white were energy partials sent out from the sun.  They filled the sky from the sun to horizon and up over our heads.  As they appeared, farther from the sun they bent together, just like the Iron filings, they followed the magnetic fields. Fields plural. I could see the outer atmosphere of the sun, that our planet is traveling through.  I could also see huge solar flares,  with out aid of telescope.     I have a counter full of dead batteries, I thought my grand-kids wore them out.    Attention should be paid,  Keep track of the batteries,   They could be a simple early warning.    See right hand rule -- any physics book.   Think about it.

Comment by Atticus Freeman on April 28, 2012 at 8:29pm

Herbert, it's worth continuing to check into your situation. However, I suspect that some of your problem may be due to keeping the NiMH batteries on the charger. I've read conflicting opinions on whether or not this is a bad thing to do. I did find the following article, which indicates that the type of charger determines whether or not overcharging is a problem: http://www.greenbatteries.com/bachfa.html

Comment by Atticus Freeman on April 28, 2012 at 8:38pm

Hi Mary, thanks for the posts! Wow, what interesting experiences, even though the lightning one sounds pretty scary.

Anyway, it's my understanding that the length of the electrical lines plays a significant role in the effects from the CME. As such, household wiring might not be affected as badly, especially with the fuses or circuit breakers between it and the grid.

With a CME, it seems like the grids' transformers are the main problem area, and then the secondary effects of a cascading power failure and excess demand on the grid if/when power is restored.

Of course, the longer and more widespread the power failure is, the more impact it will have on the rest of society. This illustration was in the NASA link above, and it shows some of the interactions and dependencies that could start to fail: 

Comment by Mary Schmidtke on April 29, 2012 at 9:09am

Wow!  That many places to go wrong ----- Not feeling good about this.  Physics books will teach a lesson that if you move a magnetic field passed a wire it will generate a current. The idea used to create hydroelectric power.   And if you coil a wire around a piece of iron and pass a current through it it will magnetize the iron.  You can do this yourself by attaching a battery to a wire and coiling it around a iron nail.    The point being, a magnetic field will not discriminate between long wires and short wires --- all wires and metal objects could be affected.   I noticed at Fukushima, the mountain range in the back round in the photos.  If they had planned for the complete power outage how hard would it have been to have built large reservoirs of water in the mountains and had pipes run down to the reactors to supply the coolant water by gravity. All they had to do is turn the shut off valve on.  We need to "Amish up"  and have backup systems that are not sooo dependent on technology.  Every arrow on your chart will fail to exist when the electronics are fried.   The "Preppers" know this and that is what is one of the driving forces behind the movement.

Comment by Atticus Freeman on April 29, 2012 at 4:02pm

Hi Mary, I get the principle of magnetic field and wire. But, look again at your example: you take a wire and wrap it around the iron nail, which increases the amount of wire affected by the magnetic field. simply laying a piece of wire on the iron nail would not yield the same effect.

What's more, if you do some reading on CMEs, you'll find that the largest effect from geomagnetic storms has been that the long, low-resistance wires of the power grid act as an antenna (of sorts), resulting in excess, unregulated, geomagnetically induced currents that  have the power to melt the copper windings of the grid's transformers. This links in my post above are good reading, and another article of interest is here: http://hireme.geek.nz/solar-storm-hvac-transformer-avoidable-failur...

I'm not saying it's impossible for housing wires to be affected, but I suspect that if the geomagnetic storms are strong enough to cause that, then the grid would've probably been toast long before then.

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