(Part 1 of 2)
What was the Carrington Event of 1859?
Named after amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who discovered a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed for earth in the early morning hours of September 1, 1859. On that fateful morning, telegraph communications fell silent, telegraph operators received shocks from sparks emitting from their machines, and the bright light emitted from this storm prompted laborers to go to work early, believing it was later in the day than it was. Even birds chirped in the bright pre-dawn light- but it was the massive glow from the largest solar storm ever recorded.
What is a coronal mass ejection (CME)?
As one of the most powerful events that can take place in our solar system, CMEs occur as an ejection of a massive amount of charged particles and magnetic fields from the sun’s corona. The corona is the sun’s outermost layer.
A CME with as much power as the Carrington event only takes between 17-24 hours to reach earth once ejected- leaving very little time to prepare. There are many CMEs and solar flares that occur throughout the year. Luckily, many do not reach the earth’s surface but are aimed away from earth.
(As of this writing, NOAA has issued a strong geomagnetic storm alert for today, check out their site here for more information).
How likely is another CME in the near future?
Solar storms like the Carrington event happen only about every 500 years—thankfully. But smaller storms happen frequently, and storms half as intense as the 1859 storm happen about every 50 years. It has been estimated that a Carrington-class event today would result in between $0.6 and $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. alone.
Approximately every 11 years, our sun enters a sun cycle where increased geomagnetic activity takes place. This is called a solar maximum. During a solar maximum, CMEs are more likely to occur. Our next solar maximum is scheduled for 2025 however; increased activity on the sun have astronomers predicting a peak solar cycle sooner, as early as the end of this year.
If a Carrington-class event took place today, we would experience complete devastation
Our lives are so dependent on the electrical infrastructure that we may not realize how many systems are dependent on the grid. The far-reaching and potentially catastrophic effects on our lives is almost impossible to realize. No matter where you live in the world- off grid or not- life would dramatically change.
Restoring systems would be highly variable- depending on where in the world the CME hit, time of year and infrastructure affected. Resource allocation to the most vital parts of our everyday life would be a priority. Having the materials to repair or replace damaged parts would be a priority. If the materials weren’t readily available, procuring needed materials could be delayed due to the collapse of the highway infrastructure. Lives would be lost; medications would not be available once local supply ran out. People dependent on oxygen and medical devices may find themselves without lifesaving equipment. Life as we know it would dramatically change.
Some of the critical infrastructure and systems that could be affected include:
Power Grids: Widespread power outages that could last for weeks or months. Grocery stores, refrigeration units, and gas pumps, are just a few of the immediate infrastructure failures. Even with backup generators, eventually the world would go completely dark. Heating and air conditioning systems would stop working. Elevators and any electronic locks would fail. Subways would go dark. Buses would stop running.
Emergency Services: 911 calls may be disrupted, leading to communication breakdown. Police and fire departments could be overwhelmed with fires and explosions from transformers and electrical lines that became supercharged from the electromagnetic pulse. Water to put out these fires may be in short supply from pump failure.
Healthcare: Hospitals and healthcare facilities rely on electronic equipment and communication systems. Patient care would be limited or nonexistent. In some instances, hospitals and clinics may be forced to shut down completely. Medications and medical supplies would be rationed.
Communication Networks: GPS systems could stop working or be inaccurate, affecting navigation systems in aviation, maritime and land. Cellphones would not work; satellites and telecommunications would be disrupted by the powerful geomagnetic storm. In fact satellites could lose orbit and plummet to the ground.
Agriculture: Modern agriculture relies on technology for irrigation, crop monitoring, and logistics. Modern tractors and farm equipment have computerized systems that would cease to work, leaving this equipment stranded in the field and inoperable.
Water and Sewage Systems: City water pumps would fail. Sewage treatment plants would be unable to function. Toilets would back up and become a health hazard. All forms of modern plumbing would come to a halt after a few days.
Financial Systems: ATMs would stop working immediately. You would be unable to access money from your bank, with a credit/debit card. All transactions would cease to work.
Oil and Gas Pipelines: The monitoring and control systems for oil and gas pipelines could be affected, potentially leading to leaks or other safety hazards. If gas pumps did work at your local station, supply could be limited or unavailable because of pipeline shut downs.
While there is no easy solution, being prepared and stocking up for any outcome is your best defence until systems return and life as you know it is back to normal. Part 2 of this article will provide solutions and possible scenarios to help equip you and your family if an EMP takes down our modern way of life.
- Brooke Lounsbury, RN
Medical Content Writer
Keeping you informed and safe.
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