How Civilization Could End: Geomagnetic Storms

Imagine a world without electricity, where computers and electronic devices stop working and the Internet suddenly ceases to exist. This isn’t just the premise of science fiction TV shows like Revolution, it’s also what could happen in real life if a particularly strong burst of solar radiation called a coronal mass ejection (CME) hits the Earth.

Our planet is bombarded with solar particles and radiation all the time, but normally the Earth’s magnetic field is able to absorb and dissipate it, sometimes resulting in the beautiful light displays in high latitude regions known as aurorae. Occasionally, however, a mass of plasma ejected from the Sun will hit the Earth and overwhelm its magnetic field, causing a geomagnetic storm with potentially catastrophic consequences for those of us who inhabit its surface.

A strong enough geomagnetic storm can overload power grids, blowing out transformers and leaving many densely populated areas without electricity for weeks at a time. Communications, weather, and GPS satellites could be temporarily or even permanently disabled, grounding most airplanes and indefinitely disrupting global communications. Not only would our personal computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices be impacted, but we might also be unable to use services provided by Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and all the other companies that are increasingly at the center of our digital lives.

While accounts of extraordinary aurorae date back to the classical era, the most well-known geomagnetic storm in recorded history is probably the Carrington Event of 1859, which disrupted telegraph lines across the United States and caused aurora displays as far south as Mexico. As recently as 1989, a geomagnetic storm blew out transformers and caused blackouts for millions of people in Quebec.

A 2013 study by Lloyds of London estimated that a Carrington-level geomagnetic storm happens on average about once every 150 years, and that the damage caused by one today would be between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion in the United States alone. As they put it:

…a major space weather event on the scale of the Carrington Event could lead to power loss for a period of weeks or more. This would cause major disruption to transport, food supplies, emergency and hospital services amongst other things…The absence of such fundamental services could lead to major and widespread social unrest, riots and theft with ramifications for the insurance industry and society in general.

It’s also important to keep in mind that while the underlying architecture of the Internet is designed to withstand regional outages, individual data centers and server farms still run off the power grid. Most data centers have battery backups and generators designed to keep things running in case of a limited outage, but few are prepared for outages that last days or even weeks. Access to e-mail, Internet telephony, messaging services, and other communications channels could all be disrupted by a strong geomagnetic storm, as could social networks and cloud computing services that store everything from family photos to mission-critical business documents. People already panic when they can’t access Facebook for an hour; imagine what would happen if it was down for weeks.

In addition to terrestrial power grid and communications disruptions, geomagnetic storms can also have devasting impacts on GPS and communications satellites, whose navigational and power systems can be damaged by excess radiation. In January 1994, two Canadian communications satellites failed on the same day due to a burst of solar radiation, knocking out television service to most of the country, and a 2011 report by the Royal Academy of Engineering reported that 6–8% of the GDP of Western countries is dependent on satellite radio navigation systems, many of which lack any backup in case of an extended satellite outage.

August 31, 2012 CME Eruption. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

The world almost found out just how destructive a geomagnetic storm could be in July 2012, when a Carrington-level CME narrowly missed the Earth near the peak of the current solar magnetic activity cycle. We had no advance of this event, and in fact, would likely have missed it entirely had it not been observed by the twin STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) spacecraft, which orbit the Sun at points ahead of and behind the Earth’s orbit.

Even with the recent launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, which was designed in part to keep tabs on solar activity, we can count on at most 12 hours of warning once a CME has occurred. This means that advance preparation is key to mitigating the impacts of a strong geomagnetic storm.

Power transformers are designed to protect against spikes in current; however, the reality is that our power grid usually runs close to capacity, meaning there’s little margin for large spikes like those that might be caused by a geomagnetic storm. The United States power grid in particular is more susceptible to blackouts than that of any other developed nation. A massive investment in upgrading and strengthing our power grid is an absolute necessity if we are to have any hope of weathering a strong geomagnetic storm.

In addition, systems that currently rely solely on the Internet, satellites, or the power grid need to have backup and disaster recovery plans so that society can continue to function at some level in a world without electricity and where the Web, e-mail, GPS, and mobile phone services may be unavailable for an extended period of time. This is particularly important for ships, airplanes, and other forms of transportation that rely heavily on GPS for navigation and positioning.

While it’s unlikely that a severe geomagnetic storm would completely destroy human civilization, it could effectively throw us back to a pre-industrial age, wiping out decades of technological progress. While we can’t do anything to prevent CMEs, we can take steps to minimize their impact. Understanding the risks that we face and developing mitigation strategies will ensure that we can continue to grow and progress as a species for millenia to come.