By Russ Steele
When I was an Air Force Electronics Warfare Officer we worried about the effects of a nuclear detonation on the aircraft electronic systems. This electronic damage would be caused by an electromagnetic pulse or EMP generated when a nuclear weapon is detonated. During weapons testing in the Pacific, scientists learned that EMP waves can fry the electronic systems hundreds of miles from the blast site. Today digital systems are proving to be more vulnerable than the analog systems used in the 1950s and 1960s.
There has been much speculation about terrorists setting off a nuclear device at high altitude over the US to create an EMP event, which would shut down our transportation, communication and electrical distribution networks. The CIA, FBI and TSA are working hard to make sure the terrorists never get access to such a device, let alone bring it into the United States.
However, there is an electronic pulse danger that government agencies have virtually no control over, and that is a super coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun. A CME is a massive burst of plasma consisting primarily of electrons, but can contain small quantities of heavier elements. CMEs are often associated with solar flares and highly active sunspots. As the sun nears solar maximum, which is forecast to be 2013, the sun will produce more CMEs, about three per day. In contrast, back in 2008 at solar minimum there was only about one CME every week.
In 1859, during solar cycle 10, there was a super CME, one of the most powerful ever recorded. This super solar storm produced auroral lights that were bright enough to read a newspaper at night. Some California miners got up and started breakfast, thinking the sun was coming up. Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators. Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire, according to some newspaper reports.
Ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica have been used to reconstruct a history of past super CME events. Evidence shows that events of this magnitude occur approximately once per 500 years, with events at least one-fifth as large occurring several times per century. Less powerful CMEs occurred in 1921 and 1960 when widespread radio disruption was reported. A 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada.
Other storms have affected systems ranging from cell phone service and TV signals to GPS systems and electrical power grids. In March, 1989, a solar storm much less intense than the perfect space storm of 1859 caused the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada to go down for over nine hours. The resulting damage and loss in revenue were estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The 1859 storm was before our modern power grid was created. The power grid that brings energy to our home and factories has been in place for only a small fraction of human history. A large solar storm like the 1859 event has not happened, yet there is a good possibility that such a solar storm could happen in this century.
If one as large as the 1859 event were to happen 70-100% of the US Power Grid will be down for years, as the US no longer manufactures the large transformers that will be destroyed during such an event. US power companies will be waiting in a long line for these transformers, as other countries will also be effected. A 2008 study by Metatech found that the time required to obtain a replacement for any one of the 370 or so largest transformers in the United States was 3 years.
The problem is more severe today than it was in the 1920s and 1960s. Now we rely on a wide range of digital devices that are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses, especially our computers. In 1920 and 1960 there was little warning. Today NASA has a series of solar monitoring satellites that can give us early warning from 18 to 72 hours. The question is, what do we do here on earth if a super CME is detected and heading our way? Well, not much, unless you already have a plan in place.
What businesses can do to prepare for a super CME event:
1) Store business records on CDs and DVDs should an event be detected, have the supplies and procedures on hand, with a detailed plan.
2) Store some back-up computers in a Faraday cage (wire-covered structure) or, wrap some laptops in tin foil and store in metal garbage cans. Do not sell those old laptops, but store them in an EMP safe storage, such as a metal garbage can.
3) If you use metal buildings in your business, ground them and create a simple Faraday cage.
4) Have a back-up generator in a metal building that is grounded and not connected to the building power, until the event is over.
5) Store your vehicles in metal buildings that are well grounded.
6) Have on-site fuel storage tanks, as the service station will not have any power to pump fuel.
7) Keep enough cash on hand to run your business out of a shoebox, the electronic systems are not going to be working.
What can citizens do should a super CME be detected:
Consider following same guidelines for business in your personal life, plus making sure you have emergency food sources that do not need refrigeration, have an emergency water supply, and lots of cash on hand as we will become a cash society. The ATMs are not going to be working. The store coolers are not going to be working and the transportation systems will be crippled. If you are storing your vehicle in a metal building, then you will need a fuel supply, as the gas and diesel pumps will not be working.
Yes, there will be chaos when people cannot get food at the grocery store and gas at the service station. Those that are prepared must also have the means to protect their homes, businesses, food, fuel and vehicles. Those who are prepared will increase their probability of survival. It has been my experience that being prepared is the best preventive for any disaster.
While a CME may not happen during your lifetime, then again it might. If it does, you will need to be prepared to live a much simpler lifestyle. Storing some seeds for a home garden might be a good idea if you have access to a water supply from an irrigation ditch. We will initially have an advantage living in the Sierra foothills, but soon we will have to deal with thousands of urban refugees, as city life will become impossible.
While this may be a worst case scenario, it is possible. Being prepared for the unthinkable will reduce the impact should it become a real human event.
Russ Steele is a freelance writer and blogs at The Next Grand Minimum and Is It 2012 in Nevada County Yet?