Solar Events Have Been Hitting Us for Years
Over 170 years ago, W.H. Barlow, a telegraph engineer with the Midland railroad in England, observed an “anomalous current” on the telegraph line between Derby and Birmingham. What he observed would become the first recorded impact of solar weather on technological systems in space weather history. (Lanzerotti, 2001).
During the next solar maximum in 1859, a solar superstorm disrupted telegraph service in North and South America, Europe, and Australia on the 28th and 29th of August, followed by the strongest geomagnetic solar superstorm on record from the 1st to the 2nd of September.
Known today as the Carrington-Hodgson event, a giant plume of magnetized plasma flared out into space from the Sun’s corona. This coronal mass ejection (CME), the slower counterpart of a massive solar flare, traveled the 93,000,000-mile distance to Earth in less than 19 hours. Solar flares, on the faster side, are bursts of electromagnetic radiation that travel at the speed of light, reaching Earth in less than 9 minutes.
On Earth, telegraph operators around the globe reported intense currents on telegraph lines, some so strong that operators disconnected their batteries. Operators throughout the world reported power loss, electrical sparking, shocks, and random combustion of their communication devices (Green et al, 2006).
“…times of bad fading [of radio signals] practically always coincide with the appearance of large sunspots and intense aurora-boreali…the same periods when cables and land lines experience difficultires or are thrown out of action.”Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer of radio in 1859
62 years later, potentially the second largest superstorm recorded in space weather history hit Earth.
“…[the superstorm] interfered with telegraphs and cables over many parts of Europe. In this country, where interferences with telegraphing were said to be the worst ever experienced, stray currents of 1,000 [amps] were registered…”The New York Times, 1921a
The damage was widespread.
“The storm burned out undersea cables transversing the Atlantic. Fires disrupted train services in the New York metropolis. In Brewster, NY, a railroad station telegraph operator was “driven away from his instrument by a flare of flame which enveloped the switchboard and ignited the building” (The New York Times, 1921a).FEMA Disaster Emergency Communication Division
People were freaking out.
“[My equipment] is possessed by evil spirits.”A French Telegrapher in 1921
There were more solar storms.
Smaller solar events have occurred since the first recorded solar event in 1847. With the two largest “perfect storms” in 1859 and 1921, radio blackouts, geomagnetic storms, and solar radiation storms continued to impact electronics. In 1989, a solar storm collapsed the Quebec power grid for a full nine hours and rendered the fiber optic transatlantic cable “nearly inoperable” (Lanzerotti, 2001).
As recently as 2003, the “Halloween Storms” that interrupted Global Positioning Systems (GPS) caused High-Frequency (HF) radio blackouts. Subsequently, the storms induced powerful currents that required power stations and nuclear power plants in Canada and the Northeastern United States to take emergency protective measures (National Academy of Science, 2008). Lastly, the “Halloween Storms” of 2003 destroyed several large electrical power transformers in South Africa (Guant & Coetzee, 2007).FEMA Disaster Emergency Communication Division
FEMA Preparation and FOIA Documents
Government Attic — a website dedicated to uploading and sharing information under the Freedom of Information Act — obtained FEMA documents in regards to FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate (NPD). The Department of Homeland Security agency had once mapped out a disaster plan for the occurrence of another geomagnetic “superstorm.”
“noting that the rare, yet high-consequence [scenario] has the potential for catastrophic impact on our nation and FEMA’s ability to respond.”The Department of Homeland Security
Eric Meuschaefer, the Chief of FEMA’s Disclosure Branch and Information Management Division in 2010, forwarded 67 pages that had been deemed relevant in outlining the assembled research on how the Sun affects space weather near and on Earth.
With recorded solar events from the past, and their impacts on electronics, communications & GPS, FEMA created countermeasures and preparedness initiatives for “perfect solar storms.”
A perfect storm must:
be launched from near the center of the Sun onto a trajectory that will cause it to impact Earth’s magnetic field;
be faster than 1000 kilometers per second and massive, thus possessing large kinetic energy;
and have a strong magnetic field whose orientation is opposite that of Earth’s.Qualifiers for “A Perfect Solar Storm”, FEMA
Our Sun can typically create three types of main impact categories: solar radiation, geomagnetic storms, and radio blackouts. The FOIA documents not only report how communications wiring is affected but also how solar radiation decreases the lifetime and functionality of orbiting satellites and solar panels on Earth.
A solar storm, solar flare, or coronal mass ejection (CME) doesn’t have to penetrate our atmosphere to cause a catastrophe anymore. If our massive collection of satellites is hit with solar radiation, functionality and the effectiveness of the satellite solar panels degrade by over 15%, decreasing their lifetimes by up to five years. (Odenwalk et al., 2005).
How are Power & Communications Affected in a Solar Superstorm?
“[The interconnectedness of the grid] is almost like a biological system.”James McAteer, an astrophysics professor at New Mexico State University
First to feel the impact would be high-frequency (HF) networks, such as some aviation and long-distance military communications.
As X-ray and ultraviolet radiation strike the ionosphere — the protective layer of our planet’s atmosphere, — absorbing radio signals trying to bounce off of it, resulting in a blackout of HF communications on the entire daylight side of Earth.
Cell towers, cell service, and the Internet would experience widespread disruptions. The widespread damage to North America’s power grid would be cataclysmic.
Second, transformers, which are extremely expensive, make power transmission possible. But when a CME sweeps across Earth, these towers, designed to handle only AC currents, are instead inundated with DC currents, causing them to overheat, melt, or even explode.
At the time of the CME’s arrival, a G5 geomagnetic storm alert—the highest on the space weather scale—would be in full effect.
Life as we know it would stand still. Cellular towers would begin to fail. Anything reliant on local power, from your cellphone charger to critical emergency response infrastructure, would be inoperable. This includes the last “tier” communications as well: cable TV or internet.
“The average big American city has several days of food for people to survive. We use GPS and computers and trucks to do real-time delivery now, but if you lost all power in one city, what would you do? The problem is trying to move more than 100 million people when there’s no [unaffected] nearby city to evacuate to.”James McAteer, an astrophysics professor at New Mexico State University
A separate, 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) theorized that a “moderately severe” geomagnetic storm could leave 130 million Americans without power. According to FEMA, power grids on the east and west coast of America would be the hardest hit. A moderately severe storm would cost the US economy $2 trillion in total, and recovery could take up to 10 years, estimated to NAS.
“It’s good to have civil authorities paying attention. It’s natural. People are using cellphones and GPS all the time, so [these threats] are more important, objectively. We shouldn’t overemphasize them, but it’s the way the world is going,”Marco Velli, professor of Space Physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Under the Obama administration, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy released new guidelines in 2015 for enhancing space weather preparedness. The action plan required data sharing between government agencies and called for more international collaboration. That same year, NASA launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a satellite that served as a “space weather buoy.”
President Trump’s proposed budget for the agency would cut funding for Earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR prior to the end of the mission.
“Things are definitely moving in a direction that makes me feel more comfortable.
But we’re not there yet.”Justin Kasper, professor of Space Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan
How to Prepare for a Solar Storm
What would you do with an imminent solar storm? While in 1859, there was almost no way to predict a solar event, now with modern detection technology, and the analysis of solar maximums (times when the sun’s activity reaches a climax), there may be a slight advance warning in 19 or so hours before it reaches us.
What to Expect
- No electricity, light, heat, or air conditioning
- Unsafe tap water
- Damage to electronics, cabling, and wiring
- Potential electrical fires in your home or area caused by the solar storm
- Radiation exposure that decreases the lifespan of your solar panels
- Inaccurate GPS coordinates reported by your devices
- Disruption to your flow of information and news
Are you prepared for not being able to use your solar panels off the grid?
Have you got a backup water treatment plan in case you just can’t trust your tap water anymore?
Do you know how to put out a fire as soon as it starts?
Unfortunately, the answer for most is ‘no’.
However, if we look at the potential effects and what to expect, we can prepare for the worst.
What to Do
- Have an alternative source of energy: geothermal, hydro, or wind
- Know how to put out a randomly combusted fire.
- Have a backup way to filter and treat your drinking water.
- Be aware of what types of electronics should be shut off and avoided during a solar event.
- Pack up and put away your solar panels to decrease solar radiation exposure.
- Track the storm and any relevant information available.
You Can Build A Faraday Cage
A Faraday cage is an insulated container that protects electronics from the powerful electromagnetic pulses that come from solar superstorms or even nuclear weapons. If you’re able to set your electronic data storage devices inside and have tested the cage’s integrity, then it’s possible to shield your data from the brunt erasure of electromagnetic waves.
These cages are relatively easy to make and can be the perfect measure in protecting your communications and digital information.
In light of FEMA’s level of preparation in the National Preparedness Directive (NPD), the potentially disastrous effects of another massive solar superstorm event are real. Lost, past skills in food foraging, water purification, and survival become more and more relevant.
The Carrington-Hodgson Event of 1959 is just one event in a series of explosive activities in our Sun. Despite a superior ability to detect and damage mitigation plans for solar superstorms, the impacts on a modern, hyperconnected world are exponential.
When the shock wave of accelerated particles arrived on September 1, 1859, the disturbances to Earth’s magnetosphere were so great that telegraph communications across Europe and North America went on the fritz. Throughout international telegraph infrastructures and machinery, solar energy waves bombarded them with powerful, unstable electric currents. Compasses wavered in determining true north, and brilliant auroras were seen as far as the Caribbean.
“These [superstorms] tend to come in clusters, so just when you’re on your knees, another one hits. They’re really the only naturally occurring catastrophe that can come in these successions,”James McAteer, an astrophysics professor at New Mexico State University
The cascading effects of a solar superstorm on power and communications would directly challenge FEMA’s ability to respond to a nationwide crisis, thus making this exercise in preparation an important one.
When FEMA is worried about their own preparedness on a national and international level, it’s time to look at your own preparations knowing that aid from the government may not come in time.
“Always Be Ready” Max