Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Magnetic Storm" on The Universe, History Channel: Coronal Mass Ejection could wipe out most of electrical grid, permanently

On Thursday, August 12, the History Channel’s “The Universe” series produced a one hour report “Magnetic Storm” (link  ).

The basic premise is that a sufficiently large coronal mass ejection(CME) from the Sun, which would probably occur at maximum sunspot activity, might overwhelm the Earth’s magnetic field and wipe out all electronics in one hemisphere, first by generating currents in transmission lines and frying transformers.

The show simulated aurora lights as far south as Washington DC in 2013, followed in minutes by a coast-to-coast blackout.

Then practically all infrastructure systems, like running water, would fail and millions of people in the developed world would die. This is the ultimate “mega-disaster” although the same effect might happen from a high altitude nuclear blast launched by a rogue state (North Korea or Iran), terrorists, or even extraterrestrials.

The massive damage from a CME could be more likely after a sudden magnetic pole shift, which hasn’t happened in 700000 years (the subject of Alan W. Eckert’s 1975 novel “The HAB Theory”). That’s because the Earth would have a period with a weak magnetic field.

The show took a sidetrip into explaining how Mars lost its magnetic field. Venus also doesn’t have one.

Utilities could harden power grid components with Faraday-cage like devices and should start planning to do so now, because a massive CME is unpredictable.

A moderate CME knocked out power in much of Quebec for a day in 1989.

The 1859 Solar Superstorm is thought to have been strong enough to be capable of knocking out the entire grid if it were to happen today. See this source at Scientific American, link . This was called the "Carrington Event".

 

The film discusses a National Academy of Sciences study in 2009 on CMEs, which I could not find. But here is a rogue copy of a New Scientist report from “GodLike Productions” where the US winds up a “developing country,” link.

There was a minor CME in late July 2010.  There was a scare over one in October 2003, with minor disruptions to satellites, the same day that Smallville aired an episode about a "Solar Flare".

Decentralized power, with solar and windmills, would seem to reduce the risk, too.

Maybe the Amish are on to something. See my Movies blog, Dec. 28, 2008. The Amish could survive CME's but not an asteroid strike, which a techie civilization might prevent. Nobody could stop or survive a supernova gamma ray burst, which, however, is much less likely that a CME.

Wikipedia attribution link for a diagram.

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