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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Solar Storms Can Devastate Entire Civilizations

Climate has inarguably become a hot topic of discussion in developed economies over the last decade, and it is getting hotter by the day as study after study warn we are close to doomed if we don’t change our ways urgently. Yet climate on Earth is not the only problem that humankind faces. There is another climate we need to pay attention to, and there is nothing we can do to change that.

Solar storms, whose more scientific name is coronal mass ejections, were until recently believed to be a rare occurrence—only happening once every couple of centuries or so. However, there is reason to believe they may be a lot more frequent than that. In a world increasingly dependent on electricity, this is, to put it mildly, a problem.

In 1859 the Sun spewed concentrated plasma that broke through its magnetic fields in the direction of the Earth. Commonly referred to as the Carrington Event, that coronal mass ejection hit the Earth’s magnetic field, which warped it and caused telegraphs around the world to fail. For a long time, the scientific consensus was that solar storms of this magnitude were a rarity.

That was in the 19th century where telegraphs were cutting-edge tech. Now, we have power grids, airplanes, satellites, and computers, and all of them are potentially susceptible to the effects of another solar storm. We also know that solar storms of the magnitude of the Carrington Event or even worse occur more frequently.

“The Carrington Event was considered to be the worst-case scenario for space weather events against the modern civilization… but if it comes several times a century, we have to reconsider how to prepare against and mitigate that kind of space weather hazard,” the lead research in a study that reached that conclusion, Hisashi Hayakawa, said after the release of the study earlier this month. Related: Iran's 3-Part Plan To Outsmart Sanctions

The question of how to prepare is a tricky one. According to astrophysicist and aerospace engineer Robert Coker, the fallout from a severe solar storm could cost up to a trillion dollars. And that was in 2017, when he wrote “The trillion-dollar solar storm” for The Space Review. In it he discussed a 1921 solar storm with a magnitude similar to that of the Carrington Event. If that storm occurred today, he wrote, it would cost $1 trillion. It is certainly worth to be prepared, but how?

For starters, by predicting solar storms, writes atmospheric sciences professor Marshall Shepherd in an article for Forbes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, together with the U.S. Geological Survey, recently presented a Geoelectric Field Model. This model, according to them, “calculates regional electric field levels in the U.S. caused by disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field from geomagnetic storms.”

This, according to Shepherd, will provide relevant government agencies with near real-time information about upcoming storms, a kind of a heads-up before a storm hits the Earth’s magnetic field. Yet it seems this heads-up cannot prevent the consequences of a geomagnetic storm. In fact, according to Shepherd, it is mainly useful as an impact assessment tool rather than a tool of prevention:

“Such near-real time information on geomagnetic storms like a CME is valuable for assessing impacts on the infrastructure associated with the electrical power grid,” he wrote, adding, “Take a moment and think about how you would function for weeks without electrical power, GPS, or air travel.”

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on October 12 2019 said:
    People will not survive long in industrialized countries without electricity. Take it from a Hurricane Katrina victim, nothing works for long without the grid being up. You can not get to the petroleum already refined, because the electric pumps do not work. In a few days, all communication stops, since the cell towers do not have power to switch or transmit. Businesses can not open because registers do not work. Even the police can not communicate. Water systems go down. Sewers back up. The list is endless.
    A Carrington event hits the USA next year, and within 5 weeks virtually everyone will be dead from hunger. Once your gas tank is empty, you are not going anywhere, except on foot or bicycle. Good luck finding something to eat. The cities will be very unpleasant places to be, once water and food run out, with total blackness all night, and no subways or signal lights. After the second day, people will begin to panic and start looting stores and warehouses for food. That will be gone in a week. Nothing moves without diesel, and oil refineries do not work without electric pumps. Stay away from melting down nuclear plants.
    The best place to survive will be on an isolated ranch out West, with plenty of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammo, in a big enough group to keep watch 24 hours a day. Night vision scopes would be nice, and mean guard dogs to alert you of intruders.
    After a couple of weeks, nothing will be moving, since the fuel would be exhausted, and then only water and food would be an immediate problem. Of course, you would need enough stored food for at least a year. Battery powered short wave radios would be useful to listen for signs of life on the other side of the planet. The side of the Earth facing the Sun would be totally fried, but the grid might survive enough to be repaired on the protected side. The area near the equator would be the best place to be, since the damage is less, the farther you get from the poles. Head down to Texas if you can, because their grid can function on its own, if it survives.
    You would want to stock up on painkilling drugs, since there would be no medical help. Knowing first aid, and how to set broken bones would be helpful. You would have to cover all windows at night to avoid giving away your position to folks who might want your food, until they were mostly dead from starvation. After a few weeks without food, humans can hardly walk, much less fight, so the first couple of weeks will be the Mad Max threat era. After that you would probably be somewhat safe, but always be armed and trust no strangers, no matter what story they concoct.
    The thing to watch out for is when the planets align with the Sun, since that is now thought to cause solar maximum, when mass ejections present the greatest threat. Someone should do a study of how they were aligned when the Carrington Event hit.
    If we had enough warning, the grid could be shut down before the storm arrived, which might reduce the damage from current being generated in the wires. I am not saying we will not get our hair mussed, but it would be worth a try.
    Do not kid yourself, a solar storm is right up there with thermonuclear war, and a super volcano eruption, as threats to our species survival. So watch out for the solar maximum and have a lot of cash handy if it looks like we are going to take a direct hit.
    And obviously, do not go bragging to anyone how prepared you are for the apocalypse, since your refuge will be the first place they will all head, after the lights go out, and they do not have anything to eat.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on October 13 2019 said:
    There is no doubt that climate change is happening. But the continuous bombardment of its destructive impact on the globe by media, environmental scientists and doomsday seers is not only infuriating a huge section of the world’s population but it is also putting their backs out.

    There were many instances in the near past where environmental scientists and University professors have massaged facts and stretched them to breaking point just to justify their research or their political leaning.

    Even where events like solar storms are projected to happen with destructive magnitude in coming years, why talking about them when even scientists can neither predict their time of occurrence nor will humanity be able to protect itself against their impact. It only worries people unnecessarily about things that may or may not happen.

    If solar storms were until recently believed to be a rare occurrence—only happening once every couple of centuries or so, what has changed to make scientists think there is reason to believe they may happen a lot more frequently? Could they let us know the scientific evidence they discovered to justify their claims and to reach the bombastic conclusion that solar storms could be the worst-case scenario for space weather events against the modern civilization?

    Moreover, how did astrophysicist and aerospace engineer Robert Coker calculate that the fallout from a severe solar storm could cost up to a trillion dollars? Is his estimate based on real science or fiction? Furthermore, how would humanity prepare against some mythical event that might or might not happen anyway?

    Even if hypothetically scientists were able to provide humanity with near real-time information about upcoming storms and even if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, together with the U.S. Geological Survey, have recently devised a Geo-electric Field Model capable of calculating regional electric field levels caused by disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field from geomagnetic storms, such storms could still happen so fast that humanity would not have noticed them until the world has gone in smoke.

    May be environmental scientists and doomsday seers could temper their doom and gloom projections and let humanity cope with daily life chores rather than worry about scientific hallucinations.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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