Most people enjoy the feeling of the sun on their skin. Warm sunny weather makes us feel better, we can get outside without a dozen layers of clothes, the flowers start to bloom…the lawn needs cutting, unfortunately, but for the most part we like the sun.
Until the advent of electricity a major flare, CME or EMP getting thrown off by the sun wouldn’t have been an issue, life would have carried on just as it always had. Indeed, if a massive flare happened tomorrow people in many parts of the world would fail to notice, because they aren’t reliant on electricity.
The rest of us would struggle hugely.
How can it be that something that has only been around for a couple of hundred years could directly or indirectly lead to the death of tens of millions of people if it suddenly vanished from our lives?
On September 1st 1859 an incident known as the Carrington event, so named after the British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, caused mayhem in telegraph offices where equipment began to fail and paper caught fire. Telegraph operators received moderate electric shocks if they were using the equipment at the time.
Carrington, reflecting an image of the sun onto a sheet of white paper saw a cluster of dark spots on the paper. With no preamble to the main event he then witnessed two huge flashes of intense white light emanating from the dark cluster of sunspots. It was all over in a few seconds, but within hours the effects would be seen or felt across the globe. What Carrington had seen was a solar flare. All over the world there were reports of bright colours in the night sky, auroras caused by the flare hurling electrified gas particles at planet Earth. The flare is estimated to have had the power of 10 billion atomic bombs.
Of course in 1859 there was no electrical grid to fail, and computer chips that would be fried should a similar event happen now, were not even imagined.
So, if telegraph offices were left inoperable and fires were caused near to the equipment, what would be the result if this happened today? It depends on what type of electricity pylons are in use in your area apparently.
A report by the Royal College of Engineering who state that statistically a storm of this magnitude is likely to hit every 100-200 years feel that the lattice style electricity grid used in the UK offers protection against such events and that the nations infrastructure is reasonably well prepared.
Professor Paul Cannon from the panel tasked with assessing the risk likened the level of disruption to that experienced by the UK when ash fallout from the Icelandic volcanic eruption affected air travel.
Chris Train, director of market operation at The National Grid said:
“Our grid is organised as a lattice which means it has resilience built in. That’s very different to the Canadian grid for example, which is point to point with long lines in series. You can see how that kind of system might be vulnerable to cascade”
The report did concede that satellites would be affected and that this in turn would affect sat nav systems down on the ground….so it might be advisable to have a map in your car. (They really said that, I couldn’t make this up )
The report also stated that some mobile phone systems are not as robust as they could be, and that those on aircraft at the time would receive a higher dose of radiation.
Having said that global positioning would be affected when the storm hit, I would assume that a higher dose of radiation is not the first thing that will come to the mind of a pilot who has no idea where he is and has just realised he is driving an enormous glider.
At this point, the computer chips on the flight deck will have been fried as the storm passed over the aircraft, I am sure everyone will be reassured by the reports recommendations that putting some alternative sensors into aircraft will help out with “electronic glitches” that may occur.
Glitches? I wouldn’t call plummeting from 35,000 feet a glitch, personally I would feel its a major disaster, especially if me or mine were on board at the time.
Almost all reports from First World governments equate solar flares to causing a few power cuts and having the odd passenger jet drop out of the sky. That, as we all know is a very simplified version of what would happen if a Carrington strength happened today. By way of a small example of the power of solar flares:
In March 1989 a solar storm crashed the Hydro-Quebec power grid and resulted in loses estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Again in 1994 a solar storm caused major disruption to communications satellites, network television and nationwide radio across Canada. Neither of these storms was particularly powerful in comparison to the Carrington storm, makes you wonder what the results would have happened if it had been.
Regardless of the attestations from the National Grid that the UK will be fine and dandy thank you very much, the reality of such an event is rather more complicated.
First a little bit of terminology. A solar flare is just that, a flare up on the surface of the sun that emits high energy radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. This can affect electrical equipment on earth and can cause interference with radio communications. Flares are graded based on their size and are referred to as either A-Class, B-Class, C-Class, M-Class or X-Class followed by a number. Each letter represents an entire order of magnitude, so a B-Class flare is 10 times larger than an A-Class flare and so on. Within each letter group the numbers rise as the size of the flare increases so an X4 is bigger than an X3. For all classes except the X-Class flares the numbers run from 1 to 9. X flares can go way beyond 9.
A Coronal Mass Ejection, CME, often accompanies a flare but not always. A CME hurls a massive ball of plasma into space, and some hours or even days later it slams into the first object it hits…
The results of such a hit are not unlike the problems if a flare hits, getting both is a double whammy.
An Electromagnetic Pulse, an EMP is caused by a nuclear explosion on the sun. An EMP attack is the same thing but man-made and will be covered in another article. An EMP throws out a massive amount of electromagnetic energy and when that pulse hits earth the lights go out, the grid experiences a massive surge and fails to cope with that surge. A very large version of blowing a fuse.
The main issue with any of these events would be the damage done to the transformers that power the grid. The electrical surge caused can and does burn them out, and when an item takes over a year to build and costs quadrillions of dollars you don’t want to be having to replace lots of them because it will take a long, long time. If you happen to have a plant that makes them in your country great…providing the plant is operational, which it may not be if transformers have been damaged and the grid has experienced a wide-scale failure.
Although the British crow about their lattice grid, that only assists in preventing a long line cascading failure, it doesn’t mean transformers feeding the grid would be unscathed.
Now if one transformer goes down electricity can be ‘re-routed’ via other lines and transformers and power can be restored, as it was in Canada in the event mentioned above. If several transformers go down that’s a different matter all together, you can only re-route so much power, to the maximum load of the lines and the transformers themselves.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that when the power goes off the TV, computer, games systems and everything else we associate with our lives today goes down with it. Electrical equipment in hospitals will continue to work as their back-up generators kick in. They will work until the fuel to run them runs out, typically between three and seven days depending on demand…which would be cut so that the only continuing care would be for patients with life threatening issues.
Drug production will cease and for those who rely on pharmaceuticals to keep them alive the outlook is very bleak in a long-term grid down situation.
Nuclear power stations would be powered down so that their generators only keep the fuel rods at the temperature required to stop meltdowns occurring. Typically, those without fuel stations have seven days worth of fuel on site to power the back up generators. Those nuclear sites with their own fuel stations on site will be able to keep everything safe for longer as they can use a manual over-ride to keep the back up generators running.
There is nothing published that says which nuclear sites have their own fuel pumping facilities. It is considered classified information.
Many modern cars will be useless as they have electronic ignition, and other electronic components. Many older models will still work if you can get the fuel.
When it comes to food the problems really begin. Living without electricity is a pain in the rear but living without food is a real biggie because as we all know we can’t do that indefinitely. Modern farming is highly mechanised and the farmers are going to face the same problems as the rest of us…lack of fuel to power the machines that harvest the grains, lack of refrigeration to keep the picked fruits fresh and so on.
Food that is in the shops will go quickly, very quickly and unless the trucks that deliver it have access to fuel stores will not be restocked. If they do have access to fuel the trucks may not reach their destination, lots of hungry people won’t take kindly to a truck full of food passing through their area heading for another destination.
Even if some kind of delivery system were in place, once the warehouses are empty they will not be replenished. Highly mechanised, electricity based mass production of food will be impossible. In addition to the highly processed many millions of people eat on a daily basis no more canned and frozen food will be produced as food plants close their doors. Mobs looting for food will become the norm, livestock will be stolen and anyone suspected of having food supplies of any kind will be at risk of organised targeting by those who have nothing.
Malnutrition will be commonplace.
Diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which most people have no natural immunity to will re-emerge. Typhus will be endemic. Typhus and typhoid are totally different diseases, you can read about typhus here.
Bodies will remain unburied as manual grave digging is time consuming, crematoria will not work as the gas supply that powers them goes offline because new supplies of gas (LPG) are not getting through. This will add to the problems we face as rodents move into areas where they know there is food, and a dead human is as much of a meal for rats as a dead animal is.
Rodents spread diseases such as leptospirosis (Weil’s disease), salmonellosis, rat bite fever and plague. The incidences of all these conditions will increase and treatment will decrease due to the lack of available drugs to treat them. In the case of plague passing the disease from human to human could give rise to an epidemic. A plague pandemic is unlikely as people will not be travelling widely.
Finally, and most pressing of all the issues associated with a long term grid failure is water. Treatment plants operate on electricity and once they are out of fuel for backup generators the water supply will dwindle. Getting enough water to drink will not be too much of an issue in places like the UK…we get a hell of a lot of rain, but in areas prone to drought, water will be way more valuable than gold.
For those who grow food, either at home or on a farm keeping the crops irrigated will be a challenge.
Sewers will back up as flushing of toilets and letting water out after you daily bath or shower no longer flushes the pipes.
Paints a grim picture doesn’t it? Having said that why should that picture be so bleak? Just a couple of hundred years ago many of the problems out lined above would not have existed as problems…it was just life, and people not only survived but thrived.
As I type hundreds of millions of people across the globe go about their daily lives oblivious to what a solar flare could do, and even if they knew it would make no difference because they do not depend on electricity.
I understand that in some areas, such as healthcare, the lives they lead are much harsher than ours, but still their communities go on. These communities are more at risk from issues caused by drought and flooding for example, than we are, because, for now at least we have mechanisms to alleviate some of the problems nature throws at us, but that not may always be the case.
To move forward we need to look back and see how things used to be done. We need to learn for ourselves, and teach our children how things were done in the ‘olden’ days and we need to impress on them that these ways were hard work but they were sustainable.
We need to look at communities that lead a ‘simple’ lifestyle and learn what they can teach us.