How a coronal mass ejection could knock out power grids, internet

On March 30, the sun released one of the strongest types of solar flares — known as an X-class flare — prompting organizations like The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to sound the alarm on the arrival of a “cannibal” coronal mass ejection (CME).

While “cannibal” sounds like a scary word, it’s simply a frenzy of fast-moving solar eruptions that group together in the same region of space triggering a powerful geomagnetic storm.

While the solar storm caused no Hollywood-style destruction, its most visible effect was instead a colorful show of the aurora borealis that could be visible at latitudes farther south than usual.

Though the energy of this storm was harmlessly absorbed by Earth’s magnetic field, large solar storms do have the potential to wreak havoc.

Here’s everything you need to know to survive a potentially devastating coronal mass ejection. 

What is a coronal mass ejection?

In order to understand what a CME is, it’s important to understand the solar cycle. 

Every 11 years, the sun completes a solar cycle in which mass amounts of radiation and plasma are emitted in the form of solar storms. 

During this cycle, large eruptions of immense energy containing the power of several nuclear bombs explode from the surface of the sun, ripple through space and inevitably strike Earth. These are coronal mass ejections.

 Traveling at over a million miles per hour, the ejected mass of protons and electrons can cross the 93-million-mile distance from the sun to the Earth in a matter of days. 

Because the area of space between the Earth and the sun is so vast, there are many CMEs that don’t actually reach our home planet.

But every now and then, this massive explosion of energy does hit our planet, resulting in a geomagnetic storm which usually manifests into auroral lights typically seen near the north and south poles. 

Similar to how hurricanes are ranked by categories, The U.S. Space Weather Center (SWPC) ranks solar storms on a scale of “G1 Minor” to “G5 Extreme,” with a G5 storm being the most dangerous.

NASA and NOAA projection models indicated that a massive solar storm struck Earth’s magnetic field on April 14 with an 80% chance of reaching G2-level conditions, according to space weather physicist Tamitha Skov.

A G2-level storm could result in some transformer damage depending on how long storms last and may require spacecraft operations to enact corrective actions on orientation, according to the NOAA.

Have we experienced CMEs before?

Earth has been experiencing space storms throughout its history. Scientific data from ice samples taken from the arctic show evidence of massive geomagnetic storms as early as 774 A.D.

In 1859, the Carrington Event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, caused mass terror when it obliterated the entire global telegraph system. Auroras were visible as far south as Colombia in what is considered the largest recorded account of a solar storm to hit Earth.

Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks when touching their instruments as telegraph paper reportedly caught fire from the shortages.

Because the Carrington Event occurred when humans were still early in their technological journey, the damage was minimal. However, experts say if a Carrington-style event were to occur today, with our reliance on technology, the effects could be devastating.

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A solar flare erupts on the far right side of the sun, in this image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The flare peaked at 6:34 p.m. EDT on March 12, 2014.

How dangerous are solar storms?

When the April 14 solar storm crashes into Earth’s magnetic field “all of that extra radiation can damage the satellites we use for communications and navigation. It can disrupt power grids that provide our electricity. The radiation from solar storms can also be dangerous for astronauts in space,” 

according to NASA.

Danger to astronauts

While humans on Earth are at risk of experiencing residual impacts of a solar storm like potential blackouts from a destroyed power grid, humans in space face the greatest immediate risk to health.

A solar storm in 1989 that caused a mass power blackout in Canada also gave the maximum yearly radiation dose to cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station in a manner of hours. 

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Sunspots and solar prominences, 1973. Image from Skylab’s solar telescope.  ((Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images))

“Not only does our, Earth’s, magnetic field, protect us, also the atmosphere absorbs a lot of energy that just never gets down to the surface. So we don’t feel a lot of the radiation. But out in space, especially when you have astronauts, for example on the International Space Station, even though it is protected within the Earth’s magnetic cocoon, radiation still impacts,” NASA scientist Dr. Jim Spann explained.

According to Spann, NASA is on constant alert to ensure the safety of astronauts during a CME or solar flare that could disrupt Earth’s magnetic field and potentially disrupt operations on the ISS.

Danger to satellites

A recent solar storm in February ravaged a fleet of SpaceX satellites. SpaceX said a geomagnetic storm made the atmosphere denser, which increased the drag on 40 newly-launched Starlink internet satellites, effectively dooming them.

Those satellites were still vulnerable because they were still in very low Earth orbit. But research presented in 2021 at the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference explained other ways that an extreme space weather event like a CME could send our modern world into an “internet apocalypse.”

Danger to the internet

Researchers at SIGCOMM 2021 argued that if a massive Carrington-style event were to strike Earth, it would create something similar to a massive electromagnetic pulse, which would strike the surface of the planet, potentially destroying underwater internet cables that make up the majority of the internet and other communications systems on our planet.

“A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), popularly known as solar storm, is a directional ejection of a large mass of highly magnetized particles from the sun. When the earth is in the direct path of a CME, these magnetized and charged solar particles will interact with the earth’s magnetic field and produce several effects. In addition to spectacular auroral displays, they produce Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) on the earth’s surface through electromagnetic induction. Based on the strength of the CME, in extreme cases, GIC has the potential to enter and damage long-distance cables that constitute the backbone of the Internet,” the report warned.

Undersea cables provide a critical link between parts of the globe, but they have proven vulnerable to other natural disasters.

Two hundred or so cable-related outages take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment snags the lines. Others break during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

In January 2022, a huge volcanic eruption severed a crucial undersea fiber-optic cable, cutting the entire internet connection for the South Pacific island of Tonga. 

Danger to the power grid

In addition to physical connections like cables, the internet obviously requires electricity. But Spann, who leads NASA’s heliophysics division, said a large magnetic storm could take out power across a massive area of the country.

“In an extreme case, when you have a very, very large magnetic storm, it can actually take out power and destroy transformers over a large region of the United States, for example. And it’s not localized like a tornado or a hurricane or flooding. It is regional – multiple states – like the whole New England area or the South or all of the West Coast, depending on how the power grid is oriented and where the energy is absorbed,” Spann said.

Protecting the power grids

Jesse Rorabaugh, an engineer with Southern California Edison, said much of the southern half of the United States doesn’t have to worry too much about power outages caused by a CME, however, those closer to the north could experience some issues.

On March 10, 1989, astronomers witnessed a huge CME emanating from the sun which released a billion-ton cloud of gas, according to NASA.

“It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time,” NASA said.

That ball of energy started heading toward Earth at a million miles an hour and collided with the planet’s magnetic field on March 12, 1989.

“The violence of this ‘geomagnetic storm’ caused spectacular ‘northern lights’ that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba,” according to NASA.

But the beautiful light show wasn’t the only unusual thing that occurred. Power was knocked out for the entire province of Quebec, Canada, and lasted for 12 hours. 

If a CME that was about the same size as the Quebec event were to occur, Rorabaugh hypothesized the worst that could happen was that power would get knocked out for a few hours, but that is the extent.

U.S. power grids are built to withstand any power surge caused by geomagnetic storms as a result of a CME or solar storm.

In fact, in 2015, federal agencies got together with power companies to discuss preventative measures that needed to be taken in order to avoid such huge outages as a result of space weather.

“And they said you could do a couple of things. The biggest one, I think, is just studying what would happen to your grid. And as I remember, you take a 1-in-100-year event, what would that do to your grid,” Rorabaugh posited.

So companies were mandated to observe data based on events such as Carrington and create redundancies to ensure there is little to no failure in the power grid.

“So because of those regulations, I think we’re in a pretty good state, nationwide,” Rorabaugh added.

“Between the 1989 incident and now, there were a number of studies done, a number of technical things that have been done to try and reduce the probability that of this happening. As I understand that Quebec incident, the current being pushed around through the Earth by that storm, some of it hopped up on the power lines and the power lines thought, ‘Uh-oh, there’s this extra current going around, there must be a problem.’ And they opened up,” Rorabaugh explained.

On most power lines, there is a circuit breaker at the end of the lines that open up to help mitigate a power surge, stopping any further damage. 

“Many of the biggest outages that have happened have been that something failed to open up quickly enough,” Rorabaugh said.

However, should a CME such as the Carrington Event in 1859 were to occur, there could be some significant damage. 

“If you start looking at a Carrington Event, you might actually start to have enough current going around that you could damage some of the equipment on the grid,” Rorabaugh hypothesized. 

That extra boost of energy could potentially hop up onto power lines and even cause some damage to transformers, which are critical to ensuring we get our power — but again, experts say this is all hypothetical and very unlikely.

Modern transformers have been built to withstand any power surge that could be caused by a significant CME or solar storm, according to Rorabaugh. Now, data collected from studies on CMEs and other space weather events allow manufacturers to create equipment that should be able to withstand any significant space weather event so we Earthlings can continue living out our daily tech lives with no disturbances. 

Indeed, Spann is quick to remind readers that space weather — like Earth weather — is always present and yet we barely notice. 

Space weather occurs all the time and various systems like GPS for self-driving trucks and tractors for agriculture can be interrupted.

And luckily, an extreme solar storm capable of creating an Armageddon-like event sending us back to a pre-internet age is rare. The chances of such an event occurring are only 1.6% to 12% every 10 years, according to LiveScience.

How to prepare for a worst-case scenario

So — hypothetically speaking — if a Carrington-sized CME were to occur and massive blackouts and power outages take place, what do you need to weather out the space storm?

Well, there are a number of things that could happen in the span of time it takes for power to be turned back on, including:

  • Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
  • Loss of perishable foods and medications
  • Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems
  • Loss of computer systems, telephone systems, and communications systems (including disruptions in airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services)
  • Loss of public transportation systems
  • Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines
  • Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power

This all sounds like pretty similar things to expect during any natural disaster that takes place on Earth, so don’t freak out because all you have to do is be prepared.

Ready.gov suggests building an emergency kit prepped with the basics like water (at least one gallon a day for several days), a flashlight, batteries, first aid kit, moist towelettes and many other items that won’t perish after a long time. 

And if you don’t have the finances or time to put together a kit right this instant, you certainly don’t have to but make sure you still have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with our space weather.

The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) and the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Weather Agency (AFWA) work closely with one another to ensure both military personnel and civilians stay well-informed on the weather happening outside of our atmosphere.

“The SWPC draws on a variety of data sources, both space and ground-based, to provide forecasts, watches, warnings, alerts, and summaries as well as operational space weather products to civilian and commercial users,” according to Ready.gov.

To keep tabs on any space weather alerts or warnings, follow SWPC on Twitter.

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