So an article about an impending solar storm came across my desk the other day and I thought I’d share some thoughts with y’all. As a purveyor of post-apocalyptic mayhem, any article with the worlds “geomagnetic storm” and “impact” are going to get my attention. It’s just a given.
But not all doom scrolling is made equal, muchachos.
Yes, a solar storm just happens to be exactly what I wrote about in a five book series (creatively titled Solar Storm, by yours truly). However, the storm I described in my books that renders the earth powerless and bascially knocked back to the 1800s in terms of usable technology, was on the order of the 1859 Carrington Event — arguably the most powerful solar event in recorded human history — not a measley little G-1 storm like the article reported.
What makes a Solar Storm?
First a little basics — I did a LOT of research for those Solar Storm [another link lol] books, and not all of it made it into the books (if it did, I wouldn’t be able to bore you with it here!). A solar storm is the popular term for a coronal mass ejection. Where the sun basically gets its magnetic field all twisted up in spots and it lets loose with a good ‘ol window rattlin’ belch. This is what we see (through our fleet of unblinking satelites) as a solar flare.
The bigger the flare, the bigger the potential CME, the bigger chance we have of seeing dramatic northern lights and other exciitng things like interrupted radio signals, satellite malfunchtions, and power grid failures. Don’t believe me? Ask the people of Quebec in 1989. A relatively small CME smacked us and the entire province was in teh dark for hours and hours.
Flares are classifeid as A, B, C, M, and X. Then they get a number 1-9 based on strength. Just like the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter is 10 times as powerful as the previous letter. So a C flare is 10 times as powerful as a B. An M flare is thus ten times as powerful as a C flare, and and 1000 times as powerful as an A flare and so on…so yeah, a C-9 is pretty powerful, relatively speaking, but is a spark in the night vs an X-class flare of any size. X-class flares start out 10,000 times as powerful as A-class flares.
As you may have figured out, the higher the letter and number, the bigger, more powerful the flare. A, B, and C-class flares are so puny that we don’t even notice them on earth without some super expensive equipment. M-Class flares make us sit up and take note and provide brief radio blackouts at the poles and might be a danger to astronauts up in orbit. Like A, B, and C-class flares, we don’t even really know they happen below the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, unless you’re a HAM radio operator or live way up in Canada or Scandinavia or Arctic Russia.
Then come the X-Class flares. They will light you up — or more specifically the sky. X-class flares are so powerful the 1-9 scale used for other flares doesn’t quite cut it. The most powerful flare ever recorded by NASA occured in 2003 and it measured a whopping X-28…only because the sensors on the satelites that recorded the event overloaded and they couldn’t handle anything higher. That would have been a civilization cooker had it hit the earth. Luckily, space is a big place and even as massive as these CMEs are, we don’t get hit by the big ones (like the Carrington Event) more than once every 500 years or so (we hope).
Anyway…CMEs are produced by solar flares and when they hit the earth’s magnetic field — distort the big donut shaped magnetic field in space that protects us from being fried to a glowing crisp by the sun’s radiation on a daily basis — it totally overwhelms our puny resistence and forces part of it to collapse. The energy traveling down the field lines toward the poles are what we see as the northern lights (or the southern lights).
Well collapsing magnetic fields…that sounds awful…when do we start to panic?
In 1859, Richard Carrington, a Englishman keenly interested in observing the sun and sunspots, witnessed an X-class solar flare on the sun as a blinding white light that “flared” for a while, then faded. The CME that ended up hitting the earth from this historic burp sent shockwaves around the world, though they couldn’t hope to explain it at the time.
People in Cuba were witnessing the northern lights (same thing for people at low latitudes all the way around the world…it was crazy). Telegraph wires — the highest of the high-tech gadgets of the day — literally caught on fire and melted, sometimes setting fire to telegraph stations…all around the world. It took people a while to put two and two together because the telegraph was the closest thing anyone had to instant communications — so when it was fried, it was back to the Pony Express and hopefully you’ll hear from dear old Aunt Matilda next month.
Now. Imagine that kind of raw power (remember, this was an X-class event, thigh biggest you can get) hitting our relatively unshielded, power and internet dependent world…today. That scenario is the granddaddy of all post-apocalyptic nightmares. Sure, it doesn’t have the glowing cockroaches and glass parking lots of nuclear holocaust, but then again, no other global catastrophy is guaranteed to happen. World leaders might figure things out and never push that famous red button…but some day, maybe a thousand years from now, maybe next Monday, the sun will hit us with a massive CME. It’s happened many times before, and it will again. It’s just a matter of time.
So what about a G-1 storm?
From personal experience — waiting up until 3am to see the northern lights here at the Freehold (after the news and the weather shamans and social media all screamed that we were in for a shocking display of the northern lights) only to see nothing but the night sky — I can tell you that in the United States, unless you go waaaay up to the tip of Michigan or Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula…or any of the border states with Canada for that matter…you’re probably not going to see anything but Sasquatch unless we hit a G-3 at a minimum.
Now if you’re reading this from Canada, you’re probably laughing. But latitude is everything with solar storms. The higher north you are, the easier it is to see the northern lights. Huh. Go figure.
A G-1 Storm, according to the National Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, can:
- offer weak power grid fluctuations
- have minor impact on satellite operations in orbit
- affect migratory animals at high latitudes (think waaaay up in Canada)
- present aurora at northern latitudes (they claim northern Michigan and Maine fall in this category but often times the aurora seen is just a smudge of green on the horizon (seen by a camera, not the naked eye))
To really see the northern lights around the southern Great Lakes (where the Freehold is) I’d need a strong G-3 or weak G-4. And if you’re hitting G-4 class, things are starting to get real. On March 13, 1989 a geomagnetic storm kicked off that had the extent of the Aurora reaching all the way to Texas and Florida. That qualifies as a G-5. The entire province of Quebec lost power for 9 hours because power plants were knocked off line…reports are that the outage spread remarkably fast.
So yeah, when you hear about solar events in the news, on social media, or from friends, take a moment to avoid the hype (they love the click bait!) and see what the Space Weather Prediction Center has to say about it. If it’s less than a G-3 I won’t even bother to wake up. For most anyone living below Canada (except HAM operators) the solar storms aren’t even noticable.
If you want to know more about solar storms, feel free to poke around the NSWC website [link: https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/noaa-scales-explanation] they have a ton of great information for even normal people without 3 degrees in astrophysics and math.
All this is to say that if a big one does come our, *and* it’s lined up just right, *and* smacks the earth head on…well…lets just say I hope you know how to grow a garden!
As usual: remember, we live in interesting times. Keep your heads down and your powder dry.