In the last decade or so, there's been an increase in disaster fiction based around the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), or "Carrington Event", in which a solar flare destroys terrestrial power grids.
Not only has fiction run the ball on this topic, but even news organizations have jumped in on the scare mongering and would be best described as "a rambling drunk uncle".
Even National Geographic got on board, with their interactive "Survive the Blackout", though their product was more sober. On the tail end of that is a long list of assumptions that are based largely, if not entirely, on fiction. This article will attempt to separate the science fiction from the science fact, using both commissioned studies by the USAF Space Weather center, as well as historical examples that illustrate the reality of a mass CME.
First off, let's talk about the science.
What is a CME?
A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is an eruption in the sun's corona that discharges charged plasma, and they occur on a cycle:
The sun has a gradual 7 year rise to a "solar maximum", and a rapid 4 year decline to a solar minimum. These eruptions are very common as the sun is rounding the maximum and beginning to start its decline to solar minimum. This cycle plays out roughly every 11 years, though there is some ambiguity.
So what is plasma?
Plasma is super-heated gasses that are so hot that they cannot hold onto their electrons.
This plasma is the 'tail' of a solar flare, in which actual mass, and not just radiation, is traveling behind the radiation ejected from the sun in the moments after a flare. The plasma tends to arrive behind the solar radiation -which moves at the speed of light. Traveling the 92,000,000 miles from the sun requires about 8 minutes for solar radiation, but can take days for the plasma to arrive, which is why we can observe, and to some degree, forecast how coronal mass ejections will affect things on earth.
If you don't follow that, it's ok - here's what it means to on the ground floor:
Following a Solar Flare, charged particles are thrown from the sun and they're capable of interfering with the Earth's protective magnetosphere. Ionized gasses can't maintain their charge in the earth environment because they rapidly cool and stabilize in the Thermosphere (the uppermost part of the atmosphere, which contains the ionosphere and magnetosphere).
The collision of plasma and the magnetosphere creates a disturbance, and this phenomenon went pretty much unnoticed for millennia, if you weren't Inuit or Scandinavian. The "northern lights" are a visual manifestation of this process, which is actually pretty common.
Solar Maximum and Minimum: They're not a problem
It's important to note at this point that Solar Cycles, the roughly 11 year process during which CME's increase over ~7 years to a maximum, and then rapidly decline over 4 years to a minimum, has only slight correlation to observable temperatures on Earth, and only within context of broader thermal anomaly. Said another way, solar maxima and minima don't normally give us any real changes in temperature.
While people often try and attach solar activity to periods of colder temperatures (the Spörer, Dalton, and Maunder minimums), those were a part of a MUCH longer and broader climatic event called the Little Ice Age, which lasted from (very roughly) the 1400's until the late 1800's. Moreover, most scientific literature on the cause of those periods identify other, far more impactful issues, such as land use and volcanic eruptions.
Why is this important to mention now?
Well, from the blogosphere to NASA, articles are everywhere discussing the unprecedented decrease in solar activity. Some of the better ones will sight some of the cursory facts; the sun oscillates through this cycle on a rough 11-year timeline, which consists of a gradual, 7 year rise to a solar maximum, and a rapid 4 year decline to a solar minimum. Some will discuss the nature of coronal mass ejections, while giving no further information or context. Others, just say F*** it and straight-up lie, like this New York Post article, that claims:
"The sun has entered a ‘lockdown’ period, which could cause freezing weather, famine"
Even NASA's article "Solar Minimum is Coming" echos the popular phrase from House Stark, "Winter is Coming", which is both misleading and nerdy af, so it's no wonder people are adding the great solar minimum to 2020's growing list of annoying, apocalyptic check-swings.
So, while statistically, we'd have been far better off jumping on the bandwagon and producing some doom-porn that would help deepen the already muddied pool, we would rather bring you boring truth than fantastic lies.
How The Atmosphere Works
As we we discussed above - the sun emits radiation, which is what's responsible for heating the earth and easily passes through (and is retained by) the Earth's many protective spheres. The 101 version of this is that while radiation can pass through these protective spheres, ionized gasses (plasma) cannot. Once it hits the ionosphere (which consists of several layers, starting in the thermosphere), those ionized gasses begin to stabilize. By the time plasma reaches the upper reaches of our atmosphere, they start to essentially fizzle out as they interact with the ionosphere and magnetosphere.
So, the short breakdown is this: radiation from the sun causes heating and cooling, and is semi-constant. It arrives in the form of ultraviolet radiation that passes through the upper and middle atmosphere, and breaks into long and short wave radiation that heats the lower atmosphere; the troposphere... where we live.
Plasmas, on the other hand, make pretty colors and affect satellites. They don't have the energy - even in tremendously powerful solar flares - to really disrupt life down here...
However, on September 1st, 1859, telegraph workers were stunned to find lines failing, operators being shocked, and even fires. Coincidentally, an extremely powerful CME had occurred just days before.
The following disruption and mayhem became known as the "Carrington Event".
Fantasy vs Reality
The Carrington Event inspired William Forstchen to write "One Second After", a pretty cringy apocalypse tale that got Newt Gingrich to petition the House with warnings about EMP. Based largely on the effects of a natural Carrington Event, the novel helped solidify EMP as the doomsday disaster they'd all been waiting for.
The problem with CME's is that people know just enough about them to know they can damage electronics. They don't know how, where, or why.
Fiction has taken the fear and run with it, asserting that:
- -Planes will fall from the sky (they haven't).
- -Cars will fail (they haven't).
- -Home electronics will be destroyed by currents (they won't in most cases, and surge protectors can mitigate the risk).
- -Communications grids will collapse (very circumstantial).
- -Massive, global outages could occur (Extremely unlikely, due to plasma's inability to reach mid-latitudes without stabilizing).
- -The replacements parts for this infrastructure requires a long time to manufacture and there's only one plant that manufactures them... etc.
CME's *can* be serious events that do cause a lot of damage. While they won't drop a plane from the sky, they can (and do) interfere with navigation and communications equipment. These systems are all but mandatory for flight. They may not fry your car's electronic systems, but they can damage power infrastructure. Gas pumps don't work so well without electricity, and it's hard to make a purchase if the card reader is down. In 1977, a blackout in New York City left people stranded in elevators, in homes in sweltering heat or severe cold, without a way to better themselves. Violence, looting and arson was common. While that incident was not related to a CME, it does give framework within which we can see the problems of blackouts in inner city environments.
Given this, we can look at the reality of the problem and address it rationally.
The problem with CME's is that people know just enough about them to know they can damage electrical grids. They don't know how, where, or why.
History Speaks if we Listen
March 13, 1989, Quebec Canada: Several days before, an intense, X15 class charged particle event began interfering with communications and navigation equipment. It was so intense, the northern lights were visible as far south as Texas. Quebec's utility company was one of many beset by endemic power production issues. What often gets overlooked is that within minutes of the disturbance, over 200 power companies suffered similar problems.
Well, Quebec is situated on igneous rock, which facilitates Geographically Induced Currents (GIC). GIC's are what caused the grid scale level of failure of capacitors. This means Quebec was at a disadvantage from the get go.
The incident, NASA scientist Sten Odenwald called "legendary", didn't illustrate a single incidence of a vehicle being disabled. Not a single flight crash landed. Computers likewise seem to have survived. So is there a reason to believe this is a legitimate threat?
Popular culture has people believing that a CME would return society to the stone age. The truth is, a X-class solar flare and CME could be a threat - but only to very specific environments. Just like we would plan for other localized disasters, we should look at the areas in which GIC's and latitude overlap and provide an environment in which GIC's are probable. Another consideration: since the Quebec outage, there have been numerous CME's that were much stronger. In fact, the strongest CME ever recorded occurred in 2003, and went largely unnoticed. Earlier that year, an outage unrelated to CMEs greatly impacted around 50,000,000 people, so we have facts to rely on, and other legitimate concerns to consider.
The full Government findings Report can be found here.
Notice that this event occurred in High-latitude GIC country. While some people might (correctly) point out that "most powerful ever recorded" doesn't mean it was as powerful as the Carrington Event, bravo - that's good, critically minded inquiry... but please also apply that criticality to what we KNOW about the Carrington Event.
What About Weaponized EMP?
Weaponized EMP is likewise a popular concern these days, and with some reason; The USAF in conjunction with Boeing and Raytheon have 'successfully' tested CHAMP (Counter-Electronics High-Powered Advanced Missile Project). Unlike Solar EMP, weaponized EMP uses high power microwaves (HPM), which aren't as affected by earth's stabilizing atmosphere. These are also very limited in terms of wave concentration, subject to attenuation and environmental conditions. Nuclear detonations (HEMP) is another concern.
At present, AFRL isn't talking about the specifics of CHAMP. However, it's probably safe to say that given the necessary concentration of microwaves required to fry electronics that the weapon will be specific targets, rather than regional or global problems. Microwave weapons are extremely directional, narrow in scope, and probably not aimed at your Sentra. As of the time of this writing, it's not likely EMP weapons will be used to blackout a city, largely because at present they probably can't... and the actors who want to blackout cities (militaries) have conventional means of destroying power producing infrastructure that are more reliable.
High Altitude EMP via the detonation of a nuclear device is another means of potentially knocking out power grids, and has been taken seriously enough for a brief to be prepared for Congress (though they largely omitted HPM, for lack of broad ranging effects)... some of the key takeaways:
- HEMP could potentially disrupt power grids in a 250 mile radius (CSR-10).
- Both HEMP and HPM can permanently immobilize vehicles with electronic ignition and control systems (CRS-8).
- Economic damage could be severe.
If you dig through what's being said, *everything* is a best guess based on projections. The tests that have actually been conducted largely concluded with Starfish Prime in 1962, and to say electronics, knowledge of EMP, and the nature of warfare has changed a little since then would be an understatement. Further, the EMP commission gives some pretty solid evidence that points 1 and 2 aren't all that serious... for one thing, a 250 mile radius isn't substantial enough to cause a "One Second After" type meltdown. It also requires a delivery system, which means missiles capable of reaching mid to high altitude, and then reaching the U.S. or allied territory. In the age of digital warfare, it's unlikely that a nation would launch a rocket (which is detectable and traceable) rather than using digital means. The kinds of nations that might use those approaches typically have the option.
Second, the assertion that HEMP and HPM can disable vehicles is pretty much flat-out false; the EMP commission that was created to look into these problems found that the most common problem was vehicles stalling, and in their samples, of the 55 tested vehicles, only one required repairs beyond starting the thing back up.
"We tested a sample of 37 cars in an EMP simulation laboratory, with automobile vintages ranging from 1986 through 2002... The most serious effect observed on running automobiles was that the motors in three cars stopped at field strengths of approximately 30 kV/m or above. In an actual EMP exposure, these vehicles would glide to a stop and require the driver to restart them. Electronics in the dashboard of one automobile were damaged and required repair. Other effects were relatively minor. Twenty-five automobiles exhibited malfunctions that could be considered only a nuisance (e.g.,blinking dashboard lights) and did not require driver intervention to correct. Eight of the 37 cars tested did not exhibit any anomalous response."
So while we concede economic damage could be severe, the likelihood of EMP weapons being used is dwindling as cyber security threats have grown more ominous in the light of digital control of infrastructure.
Once we've evaluated the metric of Probability and Proximity to determine our risk, we need to address Duration and Intensity. While a prolonged blackout is certainly a risky situation, it is not likely to destroy our infrastructure or our way of life. We will still be able to manufacture replacement parts or make necessary repairs. This means that what we're dealing with here is a fairly normal Type II, and the methods we use to be ready for a Carrington Event or EMP attack aren't really all that different than a snowstorm, or regular blackout.
We're vulnerable to CME's, and at present there's nothing we can do to prevent them. They carry a very short "lead time", meaning we'll know what's coming, but won't have a lot of time to prepare. However, it wouldn't take much to have a few weeks worth of supplies on hand. Recall from "Understanding Emergencies": the specifics of what caused the emergency is less important than how you address it.
In the case of CME or EMP, we can say it's a Type II. Therefore, having enough food, fuel, and energy to get by for a few weeks should suffice. So unless you really just have nothing else to focus on, there's not much sense in wrapping everything in Faraday cages. A regular CME hasn't produced a collapse yet, and we've had some big ones.
As to weaponized EMP, and HEMP, at this time there's just not much strategic value in using those against civilian targets and their efficacy is speculative. For now, there are far more pressing concerns, and if you're concerned about our infrastructure, you should be thinking more in terms of cyber warfare than EMP.
Sources and light reading