Flaring Up: The Very Real Threat of Coronal Mass Ejections

Humanity is facing an inevitable catastrophe that world leaders continue to ignore due mostly to indifference and blind ignorance. This means that the public and scientific community need to more proactively address the issue to avert disaster. Specifically, on July 23rd, 2012, a massive solar storm of two coronal mass ejections (CMEs) barely missed Earth. Had the CMEs arrived one week earlier, they would have caused trillions of dollars worth of damage and disrupted life as we know it in some terrifying ways. 

The NASA website summarizes the event accurately enough, pointing out that an extreme CME “could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket.” The National Academy of Sciences describes the consequences of an event like this in lucid detail. For instance, “The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on. . . .” Repairs to a number of transformers would take up to a decade to complete, permanently affecting well over one hundred million Americans. In his article “Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know It?” Steve Tracton describes this grim scenario in equally systematic terms: “Electric power grids, communications and navigation systems (including GPS), and satellites (including weather) could be damaged beyond repair for many years. The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general.” Physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Sciences Inc. suggests that just such a storm has a 12% chance of occurring within the next ten years.

If we do get drilled by a massive CME, the chaos resulting from hundreds of millions of customers being without power for months or years will be something to behold, and not in a good way. Notions of courtesy, loyalty, love, honor, respect, and justice will change dramatically for droves of people previously unaccustomed to true hardship and the brutality that sometimes goes along with it, especially when everyone gets thirsty. Global power structures will shift, too, due to the varying degrees of damage done by the CME, leading to unexpected alliances. Former enemies will become best friends based on shared needs, and we’ll see a different breed of leader rise from the ashes and fill the vacuum left by atomized former governments.

Of course, we’ve seen speculative scenarios similar to this play out on TV and in the movies, but what will really happen is anybody’s guess. How many lights, slot machines, and fountains will continue to function in Las Vegas? Will NFL games go forward as scheduled? What about police departments being spread too thin to respond to the violence done by people hunkered down in sweltering houses with no water and electricity? Maybe it’s time to upgrade our decaying power grid structure, design sturdier satellites, place more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education, and elect transparent politicians who will help us better prepare for potentially bad times instead of perpetuating an abusive system that fails to serve the will of the people as it should. If nothing else, each of us has some time to think about how we’ll come to manage trying times in the most sensible and humane manner possible, but probably not too much time.