Apocalypse Any Minute: The Sun Storm Scenario

A solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA's GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture.

Add to the list of mortal threats to the continued existence of the industrial age another inevitable, natural event to which we have exposed the throat of our machine. You may know about the threat of solar storms — I wrote about it here in January of 2011 (“A Solar Powered Blackout”) — but did you know that one of the consequences of a strong one will be the moral equivalent of a nuclear war — a kind of Chernobyl times 100?

To review, briefly: The kind of solar storm that is dangerous to Earth is an interplanetary eruption of plasma and electromagnetic radiation called a coronal mass eruption, or CME. CMEs appear to be related to, and to have causes similar to, solar flares. Both CMEs and solar flares tend to appear in and around sunspots. During periods of elevated solar activity, like now, there are on average three CMEs per day. Beyond that, we don’t know much.

Except that when a CME occurs on a portion of the sun facing earth, and the eruption scores a direct hit on our planet’s electromagnetic field, there is, as they say, hell to pay. For most of us. Australian Bushmen who have kept to the old ways, Old-Order Mennonites and other dwellers off the grid who are not flying, at sea or in cities will be fine. The rest of us will first enjoy a spectacular display of the Northern and Southern Lights, and then lose our electricity, GPS, cell phone and satellite communications, broadcast services, Internet, air traffic control — and our composure.

I thought previously that the worst case of this scenario was the destruction of the grid. We have strung so much wire, which acts as an antenna for collecting the incoming electromagnetic energy of the eruption, that the storm will fry huge transformers and massive generators whose replacement will not be possible for at least three years. That’s not for all of them, that’s for one of them — it’s the length of time right now, in normal times, between order and delivery. (In a time, by the way, in which the factories have electricity.)

But wait, there’s more.

Among the facilities that will lose all electric power for a very long time will be the country’s 65 nuclear power plants and their 104 reactors. As we learned at Fukushima last year, a nuclear power plant that has no power cannot run the pumps that cool its reactors, and they are going to melt down and erupt massive amounts of radiation into their surroundings, which is to say 31 of our 50 states. These power plants are required to have backup generators to prevent such a catastrophe, with enough fuel to run them for one week.

Which means that one week after the magnificent aurora kicked off by the direct-hit CME, while we’re trying to deal with our fried electronics, dead satellites and disabled grid,  60 or so nuclear power plants will lose their ability to cool 100 or so reactors and the tanks holding the spent fuel rods. The reactors will heat up, boil off their water and start to melt down. The reactors will go first and fastest, but the spent fuel rods will eventually emit far more radiation because there are so many of them. Because we have been enjoying the power from nuclear power plants for over half a century without ever figuring out what we were going to do with their radioactive waste.

When will all this happen? As far as we know the eruption of CMEs is a random thing, occurring over the surface of an enormous globe, spewing in all directions, while we sit on a very small globe a very long way away in one specific direction. So the law of averages tells us two things: 1) it won’t happen very often, and 2) given enough time it will happen. Oh, and one more thing: it is as likely to happen tomorrow as 100 years from tomorrow.

And there we’ll be, on some nice day, living a perfect demonstration of a central thesis of my book Brace for Impact: every increase in the economies of scale beloved by industry has a dark, unacknowledged twin — concentration of risk. Industrialization usually milks all the profit from the economies of scale before the bill comes due for the risk.

Like the Native Americans who adopted steel knives, iron pots and firearms as the basis of their everyday lives before realizing the long-term hazard of being dependent on them, we have allowed our lives to become utterly dependent on an electric foundation that can be vaporized in a heartbeat.


[I am indebted to Matthew Stein’s recent article on Alternet for opening my eyes to the nuclear dimension of this issue. For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]

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4 Responses to Apocalypse Any Minute: The Sun Storm Scenario

  1. Richard Walker says:

    I read the articles on this site often. This one on CME damage is way over the top
    as far as scaring the heck out of people. This is a subject I happen to know something about and I think you left responsible reporting outside you office door.
    In the first place, these events are related to sunspots, which you did note, but
    they are part of the normal eleven year sunspot cycle that the sun has been going
    through since there was an earth. That includes the 40’s,50’s,60’s,70’s, well you
    get my drift. Nothing happened during that length of time anywhere near the scale
    that you foresee as a sure thing. It is true that our world has become much more
    dependent on technology and some of the electronics of that world could be damaged
    by CME’s. Engineers who built these systems understand that. The sun is under
    constant observation for the express purpose of spotting these ejections as they
    occur. When a large, possibly damaging , event happens a global warning is
    issued so that operators and engineers can implement procedures that will protect
    vital systems from damage. That includes satellites, power grids,and the like. The
    material ejected by the Sun travels at about 2 million mph, so it would take about
    45hrs to reach us. That is ample time to react to a warning. I’m surprised you
    didn’t include this sort of information in your rant. I don’t comment on articles
    very often but when an unlikely scenario is taken to such ridiculous lengths I have
    to say something

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I appreciate your comments because they demonstrate many of the ways of thinking that prevent us from doing anything to avoid our industrial crash.

      1. Thinking inside tiny periods of time: In the litany of decades you list as ones during which no serious geomagnetic storm affected earth, you reach back 70 years, which is the approximate frequency of such storms. The last strike was in 1921 — it affected radio communication worldwide and took out all telegraph communications in the US east of the Mississippi River, burning wires, exploding keys and injuring operators. Minor, glancing blows in 1989 and 2005 took out electric power for six million people in Quebec, and took out all our GPS satellites for ten minutes, respectively. The last full-on hit was 1859, when there weren’t many electronics around to fry. Except telegraph stations, which did. When a periodic event is sure to happen someday, the passage of time does not make it less likely, but more.

      2. Faith that somebody is in charge, and all is well, despite the evidence. You are absolutely right when you say “engineers understand” the problem. Sure they do. Those who have studied it are scared spitless and have urged Congress (which is looking at ways to defend against electromagnetic pulses produced by enemy action, which would mimic a severe sunstorm) to require cost-averse CEOs to pay for defensive measures as a matter of national security. Your notion that engineers will “implement procedures that will protect vital systems from damage” demonstrates a touching but utterly misplaced faith in technology to save itself, and in industry to spend money to avoid future harm to millions.

  2. Richard Walker says:

    After further research I will have to concede that many of the effects that
    you laid out echo much of what I have been reading from other sources. I didn’t
    realize that the event in 1859 was so strong in comparison to more recent events
    and even though that is estimated to be a 500 year event you are right to point
    out that such an CME could happen at any time. It is a rather scary thing if
    the sun burped in our direction with that kind of power.
    I did find one thing, in my searching, about a way to mitigate the power
    of a CME to harm the electrical grid. Neutral ground resistors could be used
    to reduce GIC levels by 60-70 percent. If any of these have been installed, at this
    point, is a question I do not know the answer to. Clearly, something needs to
    be done to protect our systems. I do believe that technology can be used to protect
    itself. The resistors are a cost effective solution to part of the problem. It was
    estimated that to install these on the grid would only cost 150 million. That’s pretty cheap. There must be other techniques that can be used as well, both operationally and structurally, that would help preserve the system.
    One thing I must say is that maybe your possible scenario involving nuclear power plants wasn’t a ridiculous exaggeration and I apologize for writing that.
    I hope that we don’t have to find out just how vulnerable our systems are through
    a hiccup from old sol.
    P.S. Crow tasts lousy.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Your response demonstrates the way of thinking that could save us all: a willingness to follow the evidence despite preconceptions. That’s not crow you’re eating — it’s our overcooked goose.