Could solar storms destroy civilizations - Solar Flares & Coronal Mass Ejections

The Sun, smooth and round and peaceful. Except when he suddenly vomits radiation and plasma in random directions. These solar flares and coronal mass ejections or EMC can reach Earth and have dramatic consequences for humanity. How do they work exactly? How harmful can they be? And can we prepare for it? While the Sun looks solid, it actually looks like a very warm ocean, so hot that it separates the atoms into electrons and nucleons, freely navigating within a plasma. This plasma is moved and formed by the magnetic field of the Sun, in the same way as the gravitational field of the Sun extends to planets and influences their orbits. But magnetism is very different from gravity.


Magnetism constitutes one half of a double force: electromagnetism. 

Electricity creates magnetic fields and magnetic fields in turn create electricity. On the Sun, the plasma, made up of protons and charged electrons, generates a magnetic field by moving and this magnetic field then influences the flow of these particles. They are thus stored in a magnetic loop, called dynamo, which thus perpetuates the magnetic field of the Sun. This magnetic field contains a gigantic amount of energy and spreads through the solar system. He carries with him an incessant stream of solar plasma, like a permanent rain, called solar wind, thus creating a kind of space weather. But all this is never so calm and peaceful, because the plasma moving on itself can generate an erratic and unbalanced magnetic field. 

This creates magnetic knots, accumulating an impressive amount of energy. When the magnetic knot breaks, like a piece of rope exploding outwards, the Sun can then throw plasma and other horrible things back into the solar system. These solar storms can have various forms, such as solar flares, high energy radiation waves. They travel the solar system at the speed of light, scanning protons and neutrons along its path, accelerating them to form a solar proton storm. Then there are the coronal mass ejections, which pull millions or even billions of tons of plasma from the solar atmosphere, catapulting them through the solar system, at speeds that can exceed 9 million km / h. When these monsters hit us, nothing happens on Earth. 

The dangers involved:

While weak solar storms can damage satellites, interfere with radio communications or be dangerous to astronauts, this weather presents no danger to people on its surface. Earth’s atmosphere protects us from the worst effects of solar radiation, mostly absorbing them at very high altitudes, either well before they reach the surface. EMC-charged plasma is returned by the Earth’s magnetic field, focusing on the North and South poles where charged particles collide with the atmosphere, making it shine and thus creating magnificent auroras. Just like any other form of weather, everything is generally fine. However, hurricanes can occur, or in the case of the Sun, solar super storms. And we know they happen once or twice a century. If one of them took place today, we would first detect large solar flares, sort of flashes before a much more dangerous storm.

This storm is an EMC, made up of billions of tonnes of superheated magnetic plasma, traveling the 150 million km separating the Sun from the Earth in less than a day. When she arrives, she sets off a shock wave, which violently compresses the Earth's magnetic field and transfers energy within the magnetosphere. But that's not all. If the magnetic field of the EMC is aligned properly with the Earth, the two magnetic fields merge. As the magnetic cloud passes beyond Earth, it then stretches the Earth's field to form a huge tail. After a while, the energy in the tail is too important to be contained. It ruptures and discharges explosively on Earth. A geomagnetic storm has just started. A few centuries earlier, no one would have paid attention. This storm pouring over the Earth has no impact on flesh and bone machines. But it is particularly impacting for metal and cable machines. Remember the dynamo. Magnetism creates electric currents.


The 19th century Earth is covered with millions of kilometers of cables carrying electricity as well as a complex network of machines, such as transformers, that make this transfer possible. The energy of an EMC can induce currents in our network can either stop it completely, or worse, destroy the transformers allowing for our network to function. This has already happened. When the Quebec power grid stopped after a powerful solar storm in 1989. But generally our engineers know how to handle these storms and therefore we hardly ever notice it. The last time a solar hurricane hit Earth was in 1859. 

The Carrington event -

The largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded on Earth. Aurorae have formed south to the Caribbean. In some places they were so bright that people got up, confusing them with the Sun. Fortunately, we only had one form of modern technology at the time - telegraphs. They have malfunctioned all over the world, electrocuting their operators and making sparks. Today we have a little more technology and we could be more unlucky. Another powerful solar storm may soon hit us. A storm as powerful as that of the Carrington event narrowly missed Earth in 2012. Studies have shown that it could have inflicted significant damage to global electronic systems, costing up to 2.6 trillion dollars in the United States alone. 

Time to replace all damaged systems has been estimated to be between 4 and 10 years old. It's hard to say how bad it could have been. Experts disagreed. Some assumed that there would be just be temporary outages, but others have worried him could be much worse. We will not know until a big solar hurricane hits us. The probability of such an event is estimated at 12% per decade. This represents about a 50/50 chance at least one in the next 50 years. And, there is more disturbing news. A 2019 article found that even calm stars, like our Sun, can create superflares every few thousand years.

Eruption orders of magnitude stronger than the strongest storms we have observed in the solar system. If such a storm hits us without preparation, the consequences could be catastrophic. It's hard to overstate how much we depend on electricity. It's not just the lights at home. It means no computers, no communication, no navigation. Prolonged power failure could result a break in the supply chain, failure of water supply systems and dry hospital generators, unfilled supermarkets while food rots in the fields. Lack of power could make it extremely difficult to restart our broken electrical network, take years or decades to restart our hungry civilization. 

Okay, is it time to panic? 

As much as daily newspapers would like the solar storms to throw us back to the Stone Age, they probably won't. Fortunately, even if solar energy storms are not avoidable, virtually all of their unpleasant side effects are. Scientists observing the Sun have a few hours up to a few days to see a CME arrive. And the engineers who work systems that make the world work are well aware of the risks posed by solar storms. Transformers and substations can be taken offline - short preventive cuts - or in other words, by unplugging stuff. Engineers can open additional lines to dissipate the extra power. 

And with cheap investments and upgrades compared to these other natural disasters require, we could protect the global power grid against even the most unpleasant storms. But we have to prepare. While the risk is manageable, it is real. Because while our sun bathes us in a warm and pleasant light, one day it could send a monster on our way that we better be ready. 

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