Space Weather: An Existential Threat

Could space weather threaten our civilization? It’s not a question most people think about. I started thinking about it for the first time in 2010 when I did the research for my novel Patriarch Run. That research introduced me to a lot of interesting people, and it brought me inside a pretty eclectic community: the small group of experts who understand just how close it is our civilization has chosen to dance to the apocalypse.

 

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 3:01 p.m. EDT on Oct. 2, 2014. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun 24-hours a day, captured images of the flare. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however -- when intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.

This flare is classified as an M7.3 flare. M-class flares are one-tenth as powerful as the most powerful flares, which are designated X-class flares.

 

It was that community of experts who invited me in April to the Space Weather Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado. The workshop had three co-sponsors:

 
 
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Heliophysics Division

So I got to hang out with the world's foremost experts on the subject of space weather. And let me tell you it was quite surreal to be in a room full of scientists who understood that the factual conversation they were having in the conference hall would be dismissed as the stuff of conspiracy theories if it were to be heard on the street.

The gist of what they were talking about is this: over the course of the last century, our civilization has unintentionally evolved to become utterly dependent on an electronic infrastructure that was built without a full understanding of the havoc space weather could wreak on its critical components. In other words, our critical infrastructure is ridiculously vulnerable to the sun's normal weather patterns. 

Diffuse gas—called plasma—flows outward from the sun as the “solar wind” and carries with it solar magnetic field lines that become entangled with the Earth's own magnetic field lines. Location of "holes" were detected in indicated pink layers, near Earth.

Credit: Image courtesy of NASA.

One of the most unsettling moments occurred at a talk tucked away in the basement of the hotel given by Bill Murtagh, the Assistant Director of Space Weather for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Murtagh summarized what the scientific community currently understands about the impact severe space weather could have on modern civilization. It was a pretty grim analysis. “These space weather events are massive.” Murtagh spread his hands as wide as his arms would allow and said, “If this represents the size of a large coronal mass ejection, the earth would be about the size of a grain of sand between my hands being buffeted by that storm.”

Although such events seem rare on a human timescale, the probability is near certainty that the Earth will be hit by very large storms. Such storms could result in economic catastrophe. But it gets worse. A storm large enough could pose an existential threat to the human species.

At this point, there are two important questions to answer.

1. How is it that weather from space could threaten electronic systems like the power grid?

2. And how is it that humanity has become so dependent on electricity that the sudden collapse of that infrastructure could threaten systems as rooted in the soil as our food supply?

Transformer Damage.

Credit: Image courtesy of NOAA.

When a coronal mass ejection disturbs the Earth's magnetic field, geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) are created that can fry circuits and melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers. If large transformers at enough substations were to fail, the entire electric grid could go down. A prolonged power outage could last anywhere between a few weeks to forever, depending on the severity of the damage.

One of the many issues we'd be facing in such a crisis would be the replacement of the transformers. The windings for these large transformers are handcrafted, and it takes months, if not years, to fulfill an order when the electrical infrastructure is intact. In the event of a crisis, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill a large order of replacement transformers. The repair couldn't happen quickly.

Meanwhile, if the power is out across the country, a lot of bad things will take place.

There is an historical example of this phenomenon. In 1859 the earth was buffeted by a coronal mass ejection known as the Carrington Event. That storm took down the electrical infrastructure of the planet. Fortunately for the people alive in 1859 (and their descendants), civilization wasn't yet dependent on that infrastructure.

At this point, I'll transition and answer the second question. If you'd like to learn more about space weather and the mechanisms of destruction to our critical infrastructure, you could read other posts on this blog (there are some great resources at the links in this post) or you could read the intelligence report given to Jack in Patriarch Run

The second question... 

100 years ago you didn't need electricity to feed the population. The "pre-electrical" carrying capacity of the planet was less than 2 billion people. Our electrical infrastructure has increased the planet's carrying capacity to 7.5 billion. Before refrigeration, food was grown just outside the urban centers. In other words, everybody ate locally. 

You can't feed our population of 325 million Americans (and growing) without our electrical infrastructure. The loss of the grid wasn't an existential threat 100 years ago because our grandparents were more self-reliant. They had more agricultural area per capita around their urban centers to meet their needs, as there were only 76 million Americans in 1900. It's just not possible for today's population, which is 4 times as large, to live as close to the land (as locally) as our grandparents did 100 years ago.

It is a statement of fact to say that our major metropolitan centers have outstripped their local carrying capacities. To meet the human need we now outsource the production of food and basic goods from around the world. That outsourcing makes us quite vulnerable to an interruption in supply.

Moreover, there is a whole list of things we can't do without electricity: irrigate crops, refine fuel, produce fertilizer, produce pesticides, process food, refrigerate food, transport food, etc.

So let's examine a worst-case scenario.

Without electricity, we could not distribute clean water to our cities or provide sanitation or healthcare. There would be no commerce as we have come to know it. Such a collapse would probably result in widespread starvation, the reintroduction of diseases vanquished by modern sanitation, unprecedented social unrest, and a skyrocketing mortality rate.

But what if it's just a little storm? 

When the big players in Washington, like FEMA, wrapped their heads around the potential catastrophe, they asked Bill Murtagh to answer a couple very important questions.

"If we were to prepare for a 100 year storm, what does that look like? What about a 1,000 year storm?"

Murtagh's answer. "We don't know. This is a fairly new science, and we don't have enough data yet."

The Washington players wanted to know just how big the Carrington Event was? "What do we need to do to prepare for a storm like that?"

The answer. "We don't have enough data to know how big that storm was."

"Well, then what's the maximum? What's the most the sun can throw at us?"

Murtagh's answer. "We don't know."

What we do know is that there are critical components to our infrastructure that cannot be easily replaced, which means that there is a damage threshold that if crossed would render the situation unrecoverable.

We know one more thing. We know how to protect our infrastructure. We could design a hardened system if we had the political will to do so.

Benjamin Dancer

Benjamin is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelityand The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security.

Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.

You can connect with Benjamin by signing up for his newsletter below and by participating in the conversation at his blog.