Larry Lambert over Virtual Mirage, one of the more eclectic minds you'll come across in the blogosphere, led
us to a post on American Thinker called, "Dodging the Apocalypse" about the recent geomagnetic storms and the apparently truly Epic Coronal
Mass Ejection that led to the storm. Credit where due, the first person
I saw writing about this event was the
Come and Make It blog.
The article is by a regular writer there, J.R. Dunn, and while I'm going to do my best to cut him slack, he really triggered me. The biggest thing is tying this CME to the Carrington Event in 1859, which I've written about a half dozen times before. For the uninitiated, the Carrington Event was a massive solar geomagnetic storm that happened around the start of the widespread use of electricity. Widespread electric power was still a half-century away, but the telegraph had led to long wires being used to communicate by what we now call On Off Keying or OOK. The disruptions to the geomagnetic field around Earth caused open telegraph keys to spark, insulators on poles to arc over, started fires and more.
The event was witnessed in real time by British astronomer Richard Christopher
"Two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out," he later wrote. Carrington puzzled over the flashes. "My first impression was that by some chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen attached to the object-glass," he explained, given that "the brilliancy was fully equal to that of direct sun-light."
Note that these flashes were so much brighter than the projected image of the sun in his dark room that he thought daylight was somehow getting into the room. The story itself is amazing. That evening, when the Coronal Mass Ejection hit, telegraph operators were able to run without batteries; the flare-induced voltages on their wires working better than batteries. The aurora display was global, even in the deep tropics.
The American Thinker article quotes "experts" saying the March 13th CME was "was ten to a hundred times more powerful than the one of 1859." My immediate problem with that is how do we know that number? The 1859 event happened only one time in human history and it happened in a time when instruments today's experts would use didn't exist. There are other things that have been attributed to massive Carrington-like storm but the problem of no measurement is compounded by no observers, and the most remote-sounding observations imaginable. To quote from this blog in 2012 about an increase in Carbon 14 levels being attributed to a Carrington-like storm in the year 774 AD,
There are a couple of known mechanisms for creating C14 in the atmosphere, one is a massive solar flare. 774 AD was 600 years or so before the first telescopes were used, so there was no Carrington to be watching.
So when a college student from UC-SD found a record of a “red crucifix” in the skies over Britain in that year, Nature published his note.
I've never heard of anyone saying there was a crucifix of any color in the skies back in 1859.
We've seen this kind of hype more recently. Back in November of 2003, toward the end of cycle 23, there was a super flare that was genuinely scary and the kind of flare to worry about. The biggest flare seen since the satellite age started, it was classed as X28 in retrospect - only because it saturated the X-ray detectors on the satellites and they couldn't measure it properly. Why didn't it harm us? Because it was on the limb of the sun and the CME went 90 degrees to our direction. So not only does this extremely rare event need to happen, but it has to be pointed at Earth - basically perfectly centered on the sun from where we view. It's important to remember that during the peak days of cycle 23 we were getting X-class flares a few times every month, and the grid was fine, wasn't it?
I haven't seen anyone say that last week's CME came with an X-class flare or
put a number like that X28 on it, but that would be interesting to find
Probably the most obviously wrong thing he said was “We do know that we have
two more years before the current solar cycle tops out, and so far, this has
been one of the most intense on record.” The best answer to show just how
wrong that is to show this plot of just the five most current solar cycles
The current cycle, 25, is at the bottom left in kind of a brown or olive drab
color and ending at 32 "Months after cycle start." It can be seen that
it's higher than the previous cycle (in pink) at pretty much every point and
it's currently stronger than cycle 24 was at this point. It's just that
being better than cycle 24 isn't really saying anything impressive.
Cycle 24 was the weakest cycle in the last hundred years. Cycle 25 is
predicted to be stronger than 24 but might not even equal the next stronger
cycle, 23. It obviously isn't cycle 23 level yet (23 is red). Where he says, “...so far, this has
been one of the most intense on record,” it has actually been one of the weakest on record.
This chart, by the way, doesn't include the strongest cycle since the 1780s,
cycle 19 from the late 1950s.
It's almost guaranteed that someday there will be something like a Carrington Event again, we just don't and can't know when. When something has happened once in recorded history, it's hard to assign a periodicity to it. If that observation about the 774 AD CME is correct, does the 1085 years between them mean anything to predictions? I don't think we can just say it's a thousand year cycle. To say a massive CME has something to do with solar cycles isn't much of a reach, given what we know from observing hundreds or thousands of solar flares and CMEs and knowing those track with solar cycles.
I know alarmism sells but I find it exhausting. I try to bound problems to give me some feel for how likely some problem is. In the case of the CME it's not just that probability there's also the probability of it being optimally placed on the sun to do the most damage. Is that two degrees of solar longitude? Five degrees? The probability of independent things like this get multiplied. If the chance of a big enough CME to cause a disaster is 1 in 100 years and the probability of it being in the right place on the sun is 1 in 180 (two degrees longitude), the probability of both is 1/100 * 1/180, or .0000555 (55.5*10-6).
There's still so much we simply don't know. Earth hasn't been hit by the biggest CME the sun is capable of at a time when instrumentation to record it existed. So we don't know how bad it might be. We know about nuclear initiated EMP due to the Starfish Prime experiment...in a remote ocean location. But we truly don't know the extent of damage one may or may not cause to a technologically advanced society. Lots of other things we don't know. That has never stopped people from speculating nor doomsayers from shouting "DOOM".ReplyDelete
Absolutely right! Remember the (Rumsfeld?) quote about both known and unknown unknowns. In many of these things, we don't know what we don't know. And we can't do the experiment.Delete
The problem you have passed over is that journalists seldom have taken math higher than freshman algebra. You shouldn't expect them to compare graphs and do multiplication using exponents. You should cut them a little slack.Delete
Anon, a journalist doesn't have to know. He only needs to know those who do know. Indeed, that has been a neccesary part of journalism for a long time.Delete
It would be nice if there was a better record, perhaps dust with some trace modification caused by flares, deposited on Mercury or in a crater at Luna’s poles, similar to layers in ice cores in glaciers here in Earth.ReplyDelete
Yeah, I agree SiG. It's like the headline last year "Hottest Summer In Spain in Recorded History." Sounds horrible right, people catching fire after walking outside, right, death doom and solar emissions, right?ReplyDelete
Spain started taking national temperatures in... the mid 1960's. Before that temps were spotily recorded somewhat whenever anyone felt like it. Only in the mid 60's did a temp record start being kept religiously nationally.
Contrast that to the US. We've been keeping temperatures at various locations, both 'observable but not measurable' and 'measurable' (first practical thermometer invented in 1867, but they had others used for metrological by the 1700s (some dude named Farhenheit dontchaknow.)) Part of the purpose of army posts on the frontiers and naval posts elsewhere was to track and collate data on temperatures and other metrological stuffs.
Same with this solar event. We are able to detect them better now, and the detection is getting easier every year. So of course we'll see more stuff now than 100 years or a thousand years or two thousand years ago.
Not an astrophysicist (didn't even stay at a holiday inn express) but as I understand it a true Carrington Event today wouldn't allow us to discuss the event here on the internet?ReplyDelete
Our thoughts about that extra bright light in the sky might be like the tree falling in the forest.
Off to shovel snow so my "pet" Mourning Doves can eat.
[You might want to delete the "Shipito Auto Marine" spam up there, it's popped up on every blog I've read this morning]ReplyDelete
Two things really bug me about the physics/math-challenged blogosphere: the terror of EMP, and the horror of nuclear war. Neither are as bad as most of the people out there seem to think it is. Yeah, scaring the carp out of people makes money, but it's wrong and evil and terrible and wrong.
"Two things really bug me about the physics/math-challenged blogosphere: the terror of EMP, and the horror of nuclear war. Neither are as bad as most of the people out there seem to think it is."ReplyDelete
WOW, just wow. I could bore you with silly information about what percentage of American (let alone the rest of the world) requires electricity to live. My wife being one of them as without CPAP she would slowly die night after night from poor O2 sats.
Maybe that's why I have my own small power supply. Her CPAP, lights and refrigeration will go on.
I could post facts about what % of American food and water supplies REQUIRE a steady power source lest that FOOLISH 3 days without water DYING stuff occurs. Hint it's over 80% of our population. No power no diesel so No trucking all that food we "Country Folks have " anywhere else.
"We grow PLENTY OF FOOD" I hear. Yep, you do have thousands of acres of Corn around you. What else is on your menu?
Maybe that's why I have a hand pump, rainwater collection, a sand biofilter on my homestead. Oh, and this morning's breakfast was over 70% (I checked) from my own property. I will miss coffee though.
And you are apparently one of them, Michael. Of course electricity is necessary for living! What you don't get is that the effects of an "EMP event" are drastically, drastically overhyped! You cannot take out "the whole East coast" with a single nuclear EMP blast. You cannot destroy a starter with just about any level of EMP (thanks, not, Mr. "One Second After"). You cannot "take out the whole internet" with anything short of thousands of EMP events.Delete
You realize of course that when lightning hits the tree a hundred feet away from you that this generates a larger EMP spike than most non-nuclear weapons? Did your car stop running? Did your refrigerator die?
No. And they won't even if North Korea launches all of their nuclear weapons over the United States at an altitude to maximize EMP.
And don't try to tell me that the nuclear EMP pulse is different than a lightning pulse. Of course the spectrum is different. But peak electron flux is what kills electronics, let alone electric supply wires.
You know how the US took down the electical supply in Iraq? The used bombs that distributed a cloud of conductive mylar noodles over high voltage lines and they shorted out. That method is effective. EMP is not.
Did you ever consider that your "small supply" would be blown away also, if EMP were as bad as you think it is? I have a complete solar main house power system, but it's properly grounded, and not for fear of EMP attacks but because I'm afraid you economically illiterate overlords will muck up the systems so badly they won't work anymore (see, e.g., California).
Don't be afraid of it. It won't happen like the fiction authors and the people who make money off your fear want you to believe. The inverse square law is your friend.
["...you economically illiterate.." should have been "your"...need a comment editor here...]Delete
I think he was pointing out that the common perception that an EMP will wipe out all electronics is incorrect. Stuff tied to the grid, which has huge stretches of power lines that make antennas, will have a problem. Stuff not tied to the grid may or may not depending on how good of an antenna they are connected to. Your wrist watch is probably going to be fine because it can't receive enough power from an EMP to damage the circuits. Your car? Probably fine, but who knows.Delete
Last time I checked the grocery stores ordering system, the gas stations fuel pumps and the cities sewage and water pumping-processing IS Directly Linked to the GRID.Delete
No fuel so feel free to enjoy your cars, no water for the 80% of our population living in cities (AND Most Homesteaders DON'T have a hand pump. SOOOO) and sewage systems failing all around.
Sounds like the beginning of a FINE Medieval Death Camp to me.
Try again Malatrope.
I work in utilities. If we lost power for any long period of time the lift stations that move sewage to the treatment plant will overflow, spreading nasty sewer water everywhere. I don't know of any plan to deal with this. We have backup generators for the main water plant that makes potable water, but without the ability to handle sewage we'd have to shut it down.Delete
Another interesting point to remember is the voltages running on those long wires are a bit ... higher ... today than during the Carrington Event.ReplyDelete
Back then, 200 volts induced on a telegraph wire was a big deal.
200 volts (even DC) on a 1/4 MILLION volt transmission line might not even be noticed...
Very good point. Also, electrical things of all sorts are orders of magnitude more protected against voltage spikes than even 30 years ago.Delete
SG, an island of sanity in a sea of hyperbole, thanks. I always find your analysis of things educational.ReplyDelete
And I apologize for having a bit of a harsh rant, above. The fear of EMP is so widespread and so unnecessary when there are so many other things that actually are dangerous running around.ReplyDelete
It would be easier to take down the entire energy system by directly assaulting the infrastructure with firebombs and simple rifles. If you had enough shooters.
The grid is quite fragile as proven by the Texas near shut down. I don't think EMP is going to be kind to that fragile system. You might want to read the Soviet EMP tests carefully.ReplyDelete
And that was with 1960's weapons. I understand they have improved their EMP output since then.
For some good reading on the topic of solar observation, try "The Sun Kings", by Stuart Clark.ReplyDelete
Now I'd have to go try to find it, but I remember seeing tests done in the one of the deserts out west or Death Valley, where the experimenters built a drive-in station to put expected EMP levels on plain, regular production cars. Not one was disabled. IIRC, a couple stalled but restarted when the key was turned.ReplyDelete
To the best of my knowledge, the power grid was only damaged by a CME once in history and that was in cycle 22 that ended in 1996. I think the CME was in '92 and parts of Canada's grid went down. Someone from that area will remember better than me.
I read that report also. Done in the 80's IIRC using BORROWED Vehicles with no budget for repairing them.Delete
They started very low EMP levels gradually increasing until malfunction occurred and STOPPED.
Only one vehicle required a tow and repairs.
The Soviet Tests showed levels of EMP over 300 times what was reported in our controlled tests.
And as a reminder, the transformers that were destroyed several times (the soviets rebuilt that town several times for their tests) were replaced by Soviet Transformers.
OUR Transformers come from China. The lead time for the large ones is measured in months.
Aside from that Mrs. Lincon how did you like the play?
Well, Michael, you won't have to worry about EMP setting your hair on fire. You've already burned it all off.Delete
That doesn't sound like the tests that I saw. I'll need to poke around and see if I can find anything to trigger the memory.Delete
It is still good policy to "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst". If the predictions relating to an EMP are overblown, that is a form of erring on the safe side. I hope we never have to find out if they are correct.ReplyDelete
Fascinating. I think I was getting several memories mixed up in my mind. That auroras were visible from central Florida and I missed them is well etched on my mind, but I had mentally separated that from the Quebec "grid crash."Delete
If there aren't breakers to isolate the transformers from the antennas, then put shorts across them and ground the shorts. CME won't melt the short+ground cables, and they can cut and pre-position cables everywhere now.ReplyDelete
Hint for you readers - when the Kp index of our sun gets over 4 or 5, expect The Roarin' Borealis to light up the night sky!ReplyDelete
Where I live, the K index has to hit 10. Even that geomagnetic storm that took down the Canadian power grid barely got them visible here.Delete
Malatrope did you go to http://futurescience.com/emp/test184.html and actually read the Soviet EMP tests?ReplyDelete