In a few hours, NOAA and NASA will launch the GOES-R satellite, which, among other things, will warn us if a dangerous coronal mass ejection (CME) is heading for Earth. A large CME could take down power grids and create an apocalyptic scenario like the one outlined in my thriller Patriarch Run. You can learn more about how our civilization has evolved over the last 100 years to depend absolutely on a vulnerable power grid at my Discussion Guide.
Rae Ellen Bichell of NPR did a news piece yesterday on GOES-R, reporting:
When space weather reaches Earth, it can change the shape of the atmosphere and add a lot of space gunk to it. That can skew GPS locations, bend high-frequency radio signals, and drag down satellites by making the atmosphere more dense. But the real threat for most of us is that space weather can fry the electrical grid. In the last few decades, it has knocked the power out in Sweden, South Africa and Canada.
"That's the fear, the possibility — the remote possibility, but the possibility — that there could be an extreme event that would put us in a position where we just don't have reliable power for months," Viereck says.
In 1859, a massive solar storm lit up the sky with an aurora borealis that was visible all the way to India and Cuba. There weren't electric grids to fry back then, but it did put so much electricity into the air that it set telegraph offices on fire.
"It was very, very much a huge event. We don't get many of those," says Viereck.
In 2012, Earth almost found out what it would be like to experience that size of solar storm in an era when people rely so much on electronics. It narrowly missed the planet.
One of the big questions, says Viereck, is: "How big can it be? How big of an event can occur?"
For now, there are no giant space storms in sight. But if one of those big events was about to occur, GOES-R, and other satellites like it should provide some warning.
You can learn more about GOES-R at its mission website. And you can learn more about the Space Weather Prediction Center at its homepage. Finally, if you really want to know what would happen if we lost the grid, you could read my thriller Patriarch Run, which was endorsed by a host of experts for its realism.