The report postulated the effects of a coronal mass ejection (solar flare) from the sun on the electrical grid of the United States. The immediate effect would be 300 transformers destroyed, 130 million Americans without power for years, and 1-2 trillion dollars in economic losses.
People who have been without power for hours during a blackout or as long as weeks after a natural disaster know what the misery of, in effect, being thrown back 200 years can entail. Years of a lack of power would be biblical in its effects.
“We have become so reliant on electricity in the last 200 years, it’s difficult to imagine life without it. Those who rely on refrigerated medications would be hard hit within hours of the power going off, as would those who rely on regular oxygen cylinder deliveries to their homes.
“The usual back-up power in hospitals is 72 hours. After that, life support machines and operating rooms will cease to function.
“Pumps at gas stations will no longer dispense fuel, affecting everything from the family car to the food supply.
“Water treatment and pumping stations will cease to function; again, this will affect a wide range of services we take for granted. Drinking water, sanitation, and even firefighting will be limited or non-existent for millions. Contestation over water in lakes and rivers will be a source of ongoing conflict for years after the event.
Many factories that make parts for transformers will not be able to do so, leaving the United States at the mercy of foreign powers for transformers and parts. (If those countries have not been affected by the event themselves.) The very fabric of the only society we know will come to a grinding halt within a week of the grid going down” (1)
In other words, quite a few people would die immediately from the effects of the disaster and more over time as society breaks down,
NOAA describes coronal mass ejections as “huge explosions of magnetic field and plasma from the Sun’s corona” (2). The speed outward would be at between 100 and 300 kilometers an hour.
If they hit the Earth they could cause a geomagnetic storm in the Earth’s atmosphere. Particularly powerful CMEs, such as the Carrington Event of 1859 (3), can cause power surges along power lines, taking down transformers and thus the power grid.
Can Anything Be Done?
Of course, there are a number of things that can be done to mitigate the effects of a CME if one is detected heading for Earth.
NASA has a solar observatory called STEREO that can catch a CME the moment it erupts on the surface of the sun (4). STEREO can detect the direction and the intensity of the eruption. Since it takes several hours for a CME to hit the Earth, nations will have time to prepare to mitigate its effects.
Popular Science reports that electrical companies can shut down their transformers entirely before the storm hits and then turn them back on once the crisis is over (5). The operation would cost billions of dollars, but that pales in comparison to the civilization-ending catastrophe that a CME hitting an active power grid would cause. Predictions have to be accurate for the power companies to shut down.
The long-term solution is to harden the power grid to withstand the onset of a CME. In this area, the federal government has continued to dither.
A CME event that brings down the power grid has such a low probability of happening that Washington has placed the matter on a low priority. Even though hardening the grid would cost just between $2 billion and $3 billion, bureaucratic dysfunction continues to stymie the effort (6).
However, a number of states have stepped up to take measures to secure their power grids (7). Besides a solar CME, lawmakers are afraid of what might happen if a rogue nation exploded a nuclear device in the upper atmosphere over North America.
Clearly, the next president is going to have to exercise leadership to get the hardening of the entire power grid going. In that way, a little prevention will mitigate and even prevent the greatest disaster in human history.