The end of days is here! The Sun is pissed and we’re all gonna die! A huge burst of gas and magnetism has erupted from the Sun and it’s heading our way – say your goodbyes, there’s no way to stop this from annihilating us all! We only have 12 hours left, people! 12 hours before global power loss. Looting. Planes falling from the sky! All communication lost! Pipelines and railway lines gone. Every satellite destroyed! And there’s nothing we can do to prevent it destroying our fragile blue rock. ‘Oh, well’, you’re thinking, ‘thank heavens that’s never gonna happen.’ But it will. Within the next 100 years. It will, I tells ya!
At least this is what I was told in that Discovery documentary I once saw. And since then, I’ve spent every day apocalyptically terrified of the day when the Sun will kill us all with its mass ejection nonsense. But what is the truth of the situation? Will a CME, a Coronal Mass Ejection, really kill us all? Or is it simple scaremongering? Well, let’s find out.
As I mentioned, a CME is not good. Very not good. It’s an explosive eruption on the surface of the Sun that would cause large parts of the corona to blast away. The worst case scenario will give us only 12 hours from observation to impact. There is a very real danger that the increased magnetism could corrode steel in things like oil pipes and that the increased electric charge could blow transformers the world over. If a big CME hit tomorrow, it would most certainly destroy most transformers in America. Whilst generators could feed the need for electricity, the entire network would take up to 20 years to rebuild, costing over a trillion dollars.
Satellites would also be hit hard. We need them for timing signals. Geospatial calculations. Time measurements. All these things synchronise mobile phone communications, orchestrate air traffic, guide fleets of emergency vehicles, plus much more. All making problems with the power grid much worse. The economy could collapse.
The National Grid, in the UK, can take steps to limit the damage if they knew one was coming. The Met Office now monitors space weather 24/7 and the government has emergency protocols in place if the worst should happen. But it would be worse in poorer nations. They would go decades without electricity, possibly descending into anarchy. We need the juice. Just think of all that food that will spoil. If the worst should happen, a CME almost certainly guarantees the deaths of thousands of people, most from starvation.
You may think this will never happen, but it has in the past. A small solar storm in 1989 blew a transformer in Quebec, causing a nine hour blackout. One in 1921 caused major fires in telegraph offices the world over. A bad one in 1859 resulted in telegraph lines being switched off because of electrical interference. In 2012, a CME that would definitely have caused all the hell I mentioned above only just missed us. By inches, readers. That’s how close we came to the end of the world.
Sure, we can prevent and mitigate much of this potential damage by installing electrical resistors like we have at nuclear power plants, but so far, all governments of the world have said these resistors are not necessary. That they will never install them in their countries. They don’t think a CME is that bad. Meaning if a CME were to hit, I’d say my goodbyes.
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