Can The Sun Really Hurt Us?

I recently read an NPR article by Marcelo Gleiser that addressed one of the themes in my novel Patriarch Run. My story explores what would happen if our vulnerable power grid were to go down hard.

 

A round solar filament that had just rotated into view burst out from Sun over a three-hour period (Mar. 13, 2016) in a dramatic display. As one can see, much of the plasma did not have enough oomph behind it to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun. Filaments are clouds of gas suspended above the Sun by magnetic forces. They are notoriously unstable and often break apart after a few days. The video clip was made from images taken every 12 seconds, the fastest cadence in the world for solar observations from space. Credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA.

 

Gleiser's piece marks a growing awareness of the grid's vulnerability. There are several events that have the potential to trigger an apocalyptic scenario like the one outlined in my book, including a cyberattack, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, and a coronal mass ejection.

Gleiser explores the third event. One of the experts he cites is John Kappenman, who helped me with the research for my novel.

Gleiser's piece is titled When The Sun Brings Darkness And Chaos. He takes pains to express that he is not an apocalyptic kind of a guy. He's just reporting on the science and the reality of our vulnerable critical infrastructure. His article explains what would happen if "the sun [got] angry and...[hurled] colossal clouds of hot plasma into outer space, sometimes in our direction."

...a very big solar storm could disrupt the fabric of society as we know it.
— Marcelo Gleiser

According to Gleiser, a solar flare can have energies of 150 billion megatons of TNT. Compare that to the most power H-bomb we've ever detonated: 50 megatons of TNT. Such events are routine for the sun. Some flares are accompanied by Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), violent events in which enormous clouds of solar material are shot out into space.

Our planet can be bombarded by these clouds and the large number of electrically charged particles within them. In 1859, a massive solar storm, known as the Carrington Event, wiped out the global electrical infrastructure of the day. Luckily, that infrastructure was primitive and consisted largely of telegraph lines. It is fortunate for those who were alive at the time (and for us, their descendants) that civilization had not yet come to depend on power grids for basic needs such as food and water.

According to Gleiser, the damage from an event like that today would range between $0.6-2.6 trillion in the U.S. alone.

If a Carrington-class or larger event were to hit, transformers would fail everywhere. Power at a global scale would be disrupted for weeks, months, possibly even longer.
— Marcelo Gleiser

I was at a space weather conference in Broomfield, Colorado, last week. I'll write more about the conference in another post. While I was there, I talked to Bill Murtagh, the Assistant Director of Space Weather for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He told me that we don't have enough historical data to predict how often these events might happen. We don't even know what the upper limit is for a storm like that.

In 2012, a massive Carrington-class event just missed our fragile planet. We can be certain that we will be hit by storms like these in the future. Such an event today would be a catastrophe, but if we were to adequately prepare, the event would cause no more disturbance than a beautiful light show.

To learn more about how the sun could effect the power grid you could read John Kappenman's report: Geomagnetic Storms and Their Impacts on the U.S. Power Grid. John has a lot to say about how we can protect ourselves from these types of events.

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.