Cleantech Worst Case Scenarios For 2024: A Major Solar Storm

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Before I go further, I want to make it clear that this article should be taken with a 200-pound bag of salt. One pinch, or even 50 pinches are not enough here. Why? Because I’m discussing something that’s very unlikely to happen.

That having been said, thinking about it can still be useful because it highlights the weaknesses of the industry, technology, and civilization itself. But, useful thinking about doomsday stuff requires that we look at such things with intent to mitigate them or prevent them. Doomscrolling can be entertaining, but it can also be depressing if we don’t find ways to pull hope out of them.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the first doomsday scenario I’ll cover this New Year’s Eve and what we can reasonably do about it.

A Repeat Of The Carrington Event Would Suck Big

The Aurora Borealis can be very beautiful, but it’s also a sign of danger in some cases. When the Northern Lights are visible further south than usual, it means that the sun has sent us a big whammy of charged particles. Life on the surface of the planet is perfectly safe due to earth’s magnetic field, but if enough long-wavelength electromagnetic energy comes through, it can wreak havoc.

Minor geomagnetic storms are common, and medium ones come along every few years. Ones strong enough to damage the power grid or cause power outages happen every 10-20 years, but they largely only affect northern countries and only for a few hours. The biggest one in recent decades was a 1989 storm that took out the grid in all of Quebec for nine hours.

In 1859, the largest solar storm in recorded history struck a lot harder. People near the equator saw the Northern Lights, and people around the world were awakened from their sleep. Miners living in tent camps in the Rocky Mountains noticed so much light coming into their tents that they thought the sun was about to rise. Writers around the world waxed poetic about the beauty of the lights, and you can read their accounts on Wikipedia.

Australian gold miner CF Herbert wrote:

It was a sight never to be forgotten, and was considered at the time to be the greatest aurora recorded […]. The rationalist and pantheist saw nature in her most exquisite robes, recognising, the divine immanence, immutable law, cause, and effect. The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution.

He was right about that last part, and telegraph operators were the first in human civilization to see the big problem. Because telegraph wires were so long, they were perfect collectors of the long-wavelength energy solar storms produce. Some of them got shocked by the current. Others watched their desks go up in smoke. In many cases, operators were able to send messages without connecting the wires to batteries because the wires were already charged.

But, since 1859, humanity has put up a lot more long wires. Telephone and internet cabling, power grids, and even some radio antennas are long enough to pick up energy from such a storm. So, if we saw a repeat of that event today, we’d be in some serious trouble. Internet equipment would get destroyed, Most things plugged in would get damaged by all the current, and the transformers owned by power companies would get burnt up. We could end up spending months or years in the dark without internet, refrigeration, or transportation.

Power outages suck, but we’d likely see a lot of death as people couldn’t get medications and destruction from desperate people who can’t find food. Fuel would be hard to come by because gas pumps and refineries both rely on electricity. In other words, times would be pretty hard.

The Good News

The good news is that progress is being made. Researchers and electric utilities are working to better understand and predict the storms, with the aim of either shutting the grid off to prevent damage during the storms or coming up with ways to keep the lights on and protect it. Some mix of the two is likely, as permanent hardening would be expensive and solar storms can be seen 12-36 hours in advance.

The other good news is that you can protect your home from being affected as much. Home solar setups generally don’t have long enough wires to pick up solar EMP like the grid does, and it’s possible to use shielded wiring that would send the energy to ground if that still worries you. You’ll need to come up with a good method to disconnect your home from the grid when you see solar storm alerts of sufficient magnitude, though.

Another option would be to have portable solar power of some sort that isn’t ever connected to the grid. We’ve reviewed dozens of different solar power setups, some powerful enough to power major appliances. With these packed up and unplugged they wouldn’t get hit by a solar storm.

But, even if you can protect yourself from power outages, public policy still plays a big role. Electric grids really should be more prepared for this threat, because no family is an island.

More Bad News

The reason I write about this at the opening of 2024 is that we’re headed into the strongest parts of the 11-year solar cycle. So, the chances of major space weather events are higher than usual over 2024 and 2025. This makes it a larger threat than in was in 2023. So, doing something about it makes sense.

The other bad news is that the Carrington Event was only the largest solar storm in written history. Scientists have looked at evidence from tree rings and other sources and have found evidence of even bigger storms. One storm in the year 775 CE was about ten times more powerful than the Carrington Event, but there weren’t any copper wires back then. An even more powerful one probably happened around 9,000 years ago.

I don’t write about all of this to scare people, though. What I’m really hoping we do in 2024 is keep the pressure up on governments and utilities to be better prepared for such an event. Clean technologies would both be negatively affected by this and could be part of the answer.

Featured image by NOAA (Public Domain).


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