Our Most Dangerous Enemy – The Sun

A little sidetrack into what may be one of the most dangerous natural catastrophes that will hit today's world that almost no one knows about.

Most people at least sort of know what a solar flare is - a burst of radiation emitted by the sun. What they don't know about is called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A CME is an actual physical plasma (positive ions and free electrons) that is released from the sun carrying an incredibly powerful electromagnetic potential. They are fairly common and can range in size. But the sun is a big thing and the odds of any particular CME hitting the Earth itself are fairly small. A big one is generally thought of as a 100 year event, meaning in any particular year the odds of being hit by one is less than 1 in 100.

Prior to the electrical age, their only observable effect were the huge auroras, caused by the interaction of the electrically charged plasma and the magnetic field of the Earth itself, seen much farther from the poles than they would normally ever be. Beautiful, but possibly scary to people who had never seen one - like a big comet or supernova.

But what happens when those massive electrically charged particles interact with a conductor of electricity? I won't try to go into the complexities of how electromagnetic field effects work, but the long and short of it is that they create a current flow in any conductor. What happens when you have more current flowing through a conductor than it was designed to handle? Short circuits or even physically melting altogether.

Your home or office's circuit breaker panel is made for the purpose of handling overloads in anything it's connected to by physically breaking the circuits. Power strips and dedicated grounds are for dealing with power overloads or drops in the electrical power grid itself, such as from a nearby lightning strike.

A CME is like a universal lightning strike that hits everywhere at once and can last for days.

The last one we got hit with, in 1859, took down the entire world's telegraph system. The next one could take out almost the entire electrical/electronic system that so much of the modern world is utterly dependant on, both on Earth and in space.

Power and satellite companies get solar weather reports just like Earth weather, but the vast majority of the population knows absolutely nothing about it and would only have an average of 3 to 4 day's warning to understand and prepare to whatever extent is possible. The only reasonably sure protection is by physically disconnecting from any power source, and securely grounding everything that could have an induced current flowing through it for the entire length of time it takes for it to pass.

Unfortunately there's no way to ground most electronics. Few installations have a dedicated ground circuit and nothing mobile (including cars and trucks - yes, they'll get hit too) is designed for it to be done at all. For small electronics the only possibility is a faraday cage - entirely enclosed in a well grounded conductive, usually copper, netting. Not many of them around and not something you can whip up in just a few days. Personally, I've got enough conductive wire for making jewelry that I could probably put something together in a few days big enough for my computer and a few small things, but that's not common. Available wire supplies to buy would be gone within hours of knowing one's coming, bought by people who already know the danger and what to do about it.

It may not happen tomorrow. It may not happen in the next 50 years. But there's no question, it will happen.

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Posted in Science.