Science of Stone Age

Readers are asking us, “Is this real?”
Or, “Could this really happen?”

The simple answer is, “Yes!”  But, to help answer the questions most often asked about the science of Stone Age, we have provided a Q&A from noted astrophysicist, Dr. Carrington Reid.

Question:  What is a solar storm?
Dr. Reid:  This is a term given to all emissions from the sun, which interact with the Earth’s ionosphere, causing the beautiful auroras you see around the North and South poles.  When the sun emits a large solar flare or CME, we will often say that this will result in a solar storm.

Question:  Can you tell us what exactly is a CME?
Dr. Reid:  A CME or Coronal Mass Ejection is a release of huge quantities of plasma and electromagnetic radiation into space from the sun. There are anywhere from 2 to 10 CMEs emitted each day and in most cases little of the matter is Earth-bound. When a CME is headed our way, its matter is deflected by the Earth’s magnetosphere, but some of it makes it through around the poles, where the magnetosphere is weakest. This is what causes auroras.

Question:  Aren’t CMEs the same as solar flares?
Dr. Reid:  No they’re not.  CMEs often follow solar flares, and in similar intensity.  So, if you have an X class flare, which is the largest classification, the CME(s) released are often, but not always, of comparable size.

Question:  So why the worry about CMEs?
Dr. Reid:  CMEs alone are not a problem, it is when there they are large enough to penetrate our atmosphere.  When we are in a solar maximum (the peak activity of a ten plus year solar cycle), like we are now, the sun often emits many CMEs and occasionally one over X1 or X2.  I worry about the really large event (i.e. the Carrington Event) or several moderate to large CMEs in a row. The moderate to large CMEs wear down the magnetosphere letting more electromagnet particles through.  These particles are attracted to anything conductive causing a process similar to that of an electromagnetic motor. That is, electrical current is induced and transmitted along the conductive material.  Anything connected to that connective material gets zapped with electricity.

Question:  That’s science, but isn’t the concept of a technology-killing solar storm pure science fiction?
Dr. Reid:  Absolutely note!  It has already happened, and it will happen again. And it doesn’t have to be something so large as a Carrington Event. Consider that America’s electrical transmission lines are already at 97% or 98% of capacity. Induced current from a moderate CME or two moderate CMEs would induce more current into our transmission lines, which would be overwhelmed. This would in turn overload the connected transformers, destroying many (the larger the CME, the worse the damage). This overload would cascade across the entire American power grid, causing it to go down. We’re talking the potential of loosing up to 4400 major transformers, that take up to two years to replace (each), and that’s when we don’t have interruptions. If most of them were destroyed, the grid would be down for decades, perhaps  even permanently.

Question:  That is scary. But come on, what’s the likelihood of our getting hit with a couple moderate CMEs or even another Carrington Event?
Dr. Reid:  It’s a scary real probability. Consider we currently get hit with a moderate CME once or twice a year, although most are not direct hits. But with two to ten CMEs emitted per day, the math is not in our favor. Now consider that NASA scientists have calculated that there is over a 10% chance of a Carrington-sized Event hitting the Earth in the next ten years. This would be the technology killer that we’re all worried about. If this happened, besides loosing our power grid, everything electronic would be zapped: cell phones, cars, radios, and anything else with a closed circuit that wasn’t shielded.

That’s why I’ve been quoted as saying, “Any day now we will be hit with a solar storm that
will return us back to the Stone Age!”