NASA: Our Technology-Dependent Lifestyle is Vulnerable to Solar Flares

In 1859, a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) known as the Carrington Event slammed into Earth. Aurorae, normally observable only near the poles, appeared in the sky as far south as Hawaii and Cuba, providing enough light to read by at night. The then-new global telegraph systems in Europe and America were brought down. Reports of sparking pylons and operators receiving electric shocks abounded - there were even accounts of people being able to send and receive messages over wires that had been disconnected from their power supplies.

Fast-forward to 2013. Our planet is orders of magnitude more dependent on its technology systems. And a solar event the size of the Carrington Event has not recurred since. How vulnerable are we, should another one arrive?

Chris sits down with Dr. Lika Guhathakurta, NASA astrophysicist and heliophysics expert, to understand the science behind CMEs and their potential risk to our way of life:

A geomagnetic storm causes a disturbance in all magnetic fields. That disturbance causes fluctuation in current. And then there are solar electric particles.

So there are many things going on. You can have all your satellites become vulnerable to a single event upset from solar energetic particles, which is essentially anything electronic that interacts with these particles. You can have fluctuation in the ionosphere, which causes scintillation; that causes problems or complications. You can have complication with navigation, causing problems with high altitude aircraft, especially in the polar route. They can’t fly in that zone. High altitude aircraft and crew are exposed to radiation hazards. Astronauts can be exposed to radiation hazards.

Most importantly, these magnetic fluctuations essentially lead to induced ground current that can actually cause significant fluctuations in our power grids. And power grids become quite vulnerable. There have been occasions where we haven’t had Carrington-type events, but even smaller events have led to failure or damage of transformers, which then leads to wide-scale blackouts without power. 

When you have such a massive electromagnetic disturbance on Earth, anything that is operated by electricity is vulnerable to fluctuation – anything. You know, so your railway switches, your pipelines -- things that you don’t even associate with space weather -- you find will be fairly susceptible to this massive onslaught of the magnetic disturbance in all geospace.

What I think we don’t fully appreciate today is that how dependent our life has become on technology. And a lot of these technologies are no longer radiation-hardened. And so they are actually vulnerable to not only extreme storms but even medium or mild storms.

And as you know, life without electricity in modern day has its impacts. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Dr. Lika Guhathakurta (39m:11s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As an electrician at the Esperance Ports I was waiting for advice. Should I disconnect all the earths to prevent the circulating ground currents blowing the transformer windings?
We have an island electrical system. In otherwords it is not connected to the National grid which has thousands of kms of highly insulated aerials.

Highly connected, inter-dependent, massive grids would react chaoticaly. It would be interesting to find out the energy ratio of the solar storm compared to the energy output of the grid. I suspect that it would be orders of magnitude greater.

My yacht electronics need to be put into a Faraday cage.

This article reminds me of the experience our hospital had a couple of weeks ago where all internet communication failed for 3 hours.  The power was still on, but internet communication was not working.  We were almost incapacitated.
1.  We use an electronic medical record and order entry system.  When the clinician types an order into the computer located in the hospital emergency department, that order is transmitted to servers several states away where it is stored and processed.  Then the order is sent back to each hospital department involved in carrying out the order.  So when I would enter "Rocephin 1 gram IVPB" the medical record did not remember it, the pharmacist did not know that it was needed and the nursing staff did not know to give it.  We were brought to a standstill.  Lots of human beings needed to scramble about passing slips of paper and talking to each other.

2.  Now days, everyone with the slightest abdominal pain (yes, even the mildest little gas pain) has an abdominal / pelvic CT scan done.  The images are transmitted over the global fiber-optic network from our location in the USA to Australia (where it is daytime during our night time) where the radiologist reads the films then sends back a text document describing the findings.  This completely stopped.  Scans could be done, but not read.   My early career was in the days prior to CT scanning:  patients were observed, symptoms treated based on the doctors best diagnostic guess, and taken to the operating room for exploratory surgery if they were clearly worsening.  I could see how this approach might be needed again with a prolonged system failure.

And our event did not even involve an electrical outage–just internet communication.

This showed me that complex systems, equipment, and the people that depend on them are very vulnerable.

Sand_puppy, thanks for an insider's view of the consequences of just losing the internet in an emergency room! How interconnected we all are. . .
In the case of a powerful CME, modern life would come to a standstill. Chris touched on the biggest concern when he mentioned Fukushima. Nuclear reactors rely on backup power when the grid goes down but have a limited amount of it available.The utilities are aware of the situation but are they doing much about it? I seem to recall the issue, as always, is money. It costs a great deal to harden the grid. Suggestions have been made to decentralize it so it's not so vulnerable to cascading blackouts. Perhaps others on PP with more information on this can elaborate on the dangers involved.

Also, how will economic collapse affect our ability to keep the grid running? Major climate events? A pandemic? Sigh . . . time to re-read "When Technology Fails" by Matthew Stein for some light bedtime reading material! frown




Our big city police dept has experienced a few short-lived disruptions of our police radio communications system due to equipment failures and software glitches. The effects were very similar to sand-puppy's hospital experiences just in the law enforcement realm. We too are very dependent on our technology which could be easily disrupted by a relatively small solar disruption. All it would take is an electrical atmospheric disruption large enough to garble our radio signals which travel through the air. Without the ability to communicate between officers and the 9-1-1 call center, emergencies cant be dispatched, officers can't exchange information or call for back up in life threatening crises. When radio failed us the first thing we did was make changes to protect ourselves. The military does the same thing when they have to switch from an offensive to defensive posture. They call it force protection. Radio communications, modern vehicles with their electronics and mobile computer terminals are huge force multipliers. Without them, police response becomes extremely slow and fragmented. In short, the public would largely be on their own without the police. Good luck with that, especially after the predators figure out the police are crippled.

 It might pay to get out of Dodge if the sun burps. Knife fights can be messy and regretful. (Mental note to self: Start a worm farm)
Studies have shown that the longer a population is at peace the greater the chances are that it will stay that way. When brutality is normalized (Thank you Hollywood), peoples' models of how to behave are skewed in that direction.

Over here in the small community Esperance Western Australia, I feel relatively safe but my daughter is going to Sydney which is a worry. (What is it with the bright lights? Is she a moth?)

Maybe you could raise the issue of getting some older style cars with distributors and carburettors. Anyone want to shed light on diesels?

The vehicle issue in the U.S. is that the internal computer mechanisms of post 1982 vehicles are more sophisticated and could potentially be blown by an EMP, and is not specific to diesel or gasoline powered vehicles. 
This is a widely held survival supposition, but I'm not aware of any case where a vehicle has been rendered inoperable by a CME, and Canada experienced a solar flare large enough to destroy automotive circuitry in 1989, and while I didn't find any reports of cars being disabled… doesn't mean it didn't happen, so if someone has some info on that, it'd be good to see.
It's worth taking note that it's hard to pump gas without electricity, and the ongoing impacts of a large scale "Carrington Event" would cripple production of food, water purification/sanitation and turn large cities into pretty dangerous places. Personally, in this kind of situation, I think your boat idea is as close to safe as you can get, depending on where you are in the world. I'd imagine piracy will make a comeback.
As to the question of Diesel, well… you can't make petroleum gas at home.
Diesel, is a different story, so it makes sense to me to convert. 


A small part of my job in the military was watching for solar activity, so they train us to recognize warning signs and keep us in close contact with Space Weather folks because of the nearly constant threat of CME's impacting our satellites, geolocation devices and aircraft systems.
Large CME's are definitely of major concern, and play a part in a lot more than people realize, though I think Police/Fire/EMS would have it significantly worse - for the military, everyday is training and we go on missions when tasked… for you, everyday is a mission, and you're lucky to get time for extra training.
Furthermore, the military works in enclaves surrounded by high walls and policed by guards… the local PD is usually a little more exposed. Lots of issues to consider with this type of emergency.
In general, I think that people hear Carrington Event and think "That could ruin up my car!" 
…because that's approachable and we understand it. The implications of destroyed communication satellites and a hammered electrical grid is somewhat outside our frame of reference, because (unless you lived in 1989's Quebec) not many people in the first world really comprehend. 
The most dangerous thing about a Carrington (or any Type Three Emergency - long duration, low intensity) is the gradient from "what we know" into the significantly less understood periods of social instability. That uncertainty is what causes panic, and when you take a population that's used to having clean drinking water a faucet away, and take not only that, but the plant that sanitizes the water away - you're left with a lot of questions that no one is immediately available to answer.
So, adding to the mix the inability of our social infrastructure to provide services that populations count on, and we see the incidences of Type One and Two Emergencies drastically creep into more and more lives, and that's when you need public services the most. With the Carrington Event, the likelihood of these services being available is low. The Carrington Event, in my opinion, could potentially have the same impact as a nuclear war on large scale production and civil and military infrastructure. 
A man I worked for/with worked with Space Weather in the military. A General requested of him a report on Carrington Events and through his description of the literature and overall event, the net take away was:

  1. We will have enough time to know what knocked us out, but not nearly enough time to prevent the bulk of the impact through shielding or preventative measures.
  2. The Socio-Economic impact would be overwhelming, and it is unlikely that we would recover within a generation or so. 
  3. The majority of the systems we have in place in the first world to maintain standard of living would be impacted, from food distrubution to sanitation.

As globalization continues, even smaller CME's have the potential to have troubling impacts on systems of production and delivery, so it's worth giving thought to how people took care of cooking, cleaning, water purification, sanitation, communication and travel without a complex power grid and distribution system… Afterall, there was a perfectly function and productive society in 1859, so the only thing a modern Carrington Event would produce is that terrifying gradient between what we have now and the laborious lifestyle required to live back then… and a population 100 times larger being forced back into that lifestyle…
Needless to say, this complicates things.


I greatly appreciate the thoughts of Aaron, Tom, Arthur, Joyce, Jim H, and a couple of others whose names I can't remember (age related memory impairment is hell!) on the subject of what the world might be like in a rapid collapse scenario.  The CME / EMP scenario is dramatic in that it INSTANTANEOUSLY disrupts modern life.  The basic question over all of this hangs in the air:  "How bad will it get?"
A slower pace of descent would enable more flexible responses, time to plant gardens, fill water bottles, and such.

The novel "One Second After" is one author's fantasy of how this might go.  A very exciting story, too.

Check out

ArthurI rencently bought an old Mercedes 300d 1986 with manual transmission.  Basically, the car's engine will run until it runs out of fuel or the fuel is shut off.  The shut off valve is vacuum operated.  If that fails there is a manual button on the side of the engine for shut off. The fuel pump is also mechanical. The engine is a 5 cylinder.  The 4 cylinder version is a 240d and is the same technology.  If you have a manual transmission the car can be push started if the electrical system is fried.  Of course, the lights, ventilation , etc might be shot, but the car would run.  These old diesels will also run on filtered fish and chips frying oils. Mileage is about 30miles/gal (USA).
I got it to build resiliance with old technology.  Merc built so many of these things that there are a lot still on the road for daily use, so much so that my insurance company will not consider it a classic even though it qualifies in age.  Parts are available and a properly cared for engine can do 500K miles before overhaul.  A well cared for one will out do that. If you are not looking for a stunning beauty, you can find them at reasonable prices.
Also, the same would apply for old tech diesel tractors.  Look for mechanical injection systems and your engine will not fail due to electrical problems. 

"It looks like we're no more than 3 to 4 months away from a complete field reversal," says solar physicist Todd Hoeksema of Stanford University. "This change will have ripple effects throughout the solar system." Read more at:

sand_puppy, the novel One Second After made the rounds in my family and converted a few of them to prepping. And EMP or a Carrington Event (same thing - one naturally and one artificially induced) would kill most of our population and knock us back to the 1800s. Solar panels would fry; we'd be left with steam-age technology. And lots of hungry, desperate people. I much prefer a nice, slow stairstep down but even without an EMP or Carrington Event, a plague or financial collapse or other doom-and-gloom scenarios could cause nearly instanteneous collapse. We simply have to live one day and a time and angle our lives toward surviving whatever life throws at us. It's all anyone can do, anyhow.

Hey everyone,
A quick correction of a figure I'm seeing mis-stated across the channels:
The solar cycle is typically 11 years. During this time, solar activity rises gradually over ~7 years to a solar Maximum, and then rapidly declines over the course of ~4 years to a solar minima. 
I say typically because there is evidence that both the incline to maxima and decline to minima are not regulated by human scheduling, and there is some contention regarding exactly when our maxima ended and how long the decline (and subquently, the incline) actually was.
The process of polar reversal is a 22-year cycle with magnetic reversals at 11-year intervals. 
I've noted this information being mixed up on a couple articles over the last few days, so, this is how I learned it. There might be a more contemporary understanding.
As to the devastating impacts of CME's, guys - don't get too wrapped up in the PopSci stuff. There's some great literature out there and "Lights Out" was a good read (I remember when the guy was actually writing it in chapters and posting it to a forum…) but it's not even close to realistic. 
First of all, there have been no indicated reports of vehicles being rendered inoperable by Solar CMEs.
All the damage that's occurred has been to large scale, 'infrastructural' grade equipment, and mainly transformers. Another thing to consider is that the magnetic pulse that eeks its way through the magnetosphere (which keeps us safe from CMEs) will be heavily influenced by latitutde. The closer poleward you are, the more likely you are to be impacted. 
There is also latent geomagnitism to consider, but that's way outside my area of experience. 
Suffice to say, things would be drastically different, but mainly because our ability to produce (what for westerners) modern necessities or (for the 'emerging' world) are convenience. A Carrington class CME would shut down post industrial society, and the 'lead time' to replace that equipment would be measured in years… so it will be quite a long time before the infrastructure becomes tenable and reliable again. 
I started looking for some supporting evidence for this and stumbled upon this Here. I'm certain most, if not all, readers will find it far more insightful and compelling than my ramblings =)


Nice Aggrivated. My neighbors converts Merc. deisels to grease. He's got a fleet of them. I haven't bought one yet because my footprint is small in my travels. You are so right in regard to the 500k and more. You should be able to get upwards of 40-45 mpg if you filter the grease. You can build and install your own heat exchanger for winter use. We co-own a MF deisel backhoe as well. Deisel conversion is the way to go if you have access to grease. We also use vegetable oil to pave parts of our private road. Instead of blacktop, we call it greentop.Peace!

Sand puppy,I do remember that weird period earlier this summer!!!
I also noticed a few weeks back that the internet connection at the lab was glitchy…our flow cytometry analysis is dependent on the internet connection to run the analysis program.  Ordering lab consummables (also dependent on an internet connection to the vendor) was offline as well.  


POLAR STORM WARNING: Two CMEs are heading for Earth. The plasma clouds were expelled from the sun on August 20-21 by a pair of erupting magnetic filaments. NOAA forecasters expect the CMEs to arrive on August 23-24, possibly sparking geomagnetic storms around the poles. Aurora alerts: textvoice.
And more here at BusinessInsider.

On a hazard matrix.


From the International Business Times:

Solar Maximum: Three Solar Flares And A Coronal Mass Ejection As The Sun Reaches Peak Solar Activity
NASA’s Solar Dynamics ObservatorySDO, has been quite busy this week. After a look at the sun’s “canyon of fire,” recent solar activity suggests the sun is getting close to the “solar maximum” phase. During the normal 11-year solar cycle, the sun sees a spike in activity and this week there were three solar flares, including two “X-class” solar flares in one day, as well as a coronal mass ejection, CME, associated with a solar flare that occurred earlier in the week.
On Oct. 25, NASA’s SDO observed two “X-class” solar flares, the highest intensity, in a span of seven hours. According to NASA, an X2 solar flare is double the intensity of an X1 flare and an X3 is triple the intensity of an X1. The largest solar flare ever observed was an X45 in November 2003. The first solar flare, an X1.7 class solar flare, peaked at 4:01 a.m. EDT and that event caused a temporary radio blackout and disrupted some low-frequency navigation signals. The second solar flare, an X2.1, peaked at 11:03 a.m. EDT.
Earlier in the week a medium-strength solar flare, an M9.4 class, erupted from the sun and a fast-moving CME was associated with the event, reports NASA. A CME shoots out billions of tons of solar particles into space. These particles cannot penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and pose no threat to humans but can affect satellites, power grids and communications systems.

On Friday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s, NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center reported an R3 (strong) radio blackout that was associated with the first solar flare on Friday and was monitoring for potential geomagnetic storming, associated with the CME from earlier in the week. According to NOAA, “Forecasters expect impacts from the first of the CMEs in about 72 hours, but things can change given the volatile nature of the three active centers on the solar disk. Possible G1 (Minor) Geomagnetic Storm levels are forecast.”

Here's a video from NASA projecting the likely path of the CME:

Between flares and CMEs, global nuclear contamination, supervolcanoes, pole shifts, celestial body impacts, Planet Nibiru, and sociopathic/satanic/alien take-over, global warming seems disarmingly benign.  We're like crabgrass, kudzu, coachroaches, and rats though.  I don't see us going away.  In a pinch, there should always be a few oligarchs to eat.  

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