What If We Were Hit By a Solar Tsunami?

You think the disaster in Japan is bad?

What if the sun pops off a tsunami that wipes out power to the entire United States?

Fact 1. In 1859 the sun unleashed a flare that, if it happened today, could fry the 300 or so multi-ton transformers that are the nodes of the power grid of the United States.

Fact 2. Said transformers cannot be repaired on site. They must be replaced

Fact 3. There is a lead time of over a year to replace ONE such transformer.

From these it follows: a flare on the scale of that of 1859, known as the Carrington Event, could plunge us instantly into a new Dark Age, very literally. No electricity. Therefore no water, no refrigeration, no gas, no communication.

No recovery.

Cities would empty and burn. The fifty percent of the US population who live within 50 miles of our coasts would flee inland, dying as they went. It would be a catastrophe on a scale which would dwarf the disaster in Japan.

That disaster was mitigated by the preparations made by the Japanese–by the strictly written and strictly enforced building codes. They could not stop the tsunami, but they did protect themselves from the quake: skyscrapers in Tokyo swayed but did not fall.

We could protect ourselves from a solar tsunami.

We could, if alerted by satellite, disconnect endangered transformers from the grid. Such a program has been proposed and studied — but not funded.

We are not yet afraid. We should be.

The analogy to the tsunami is timely in two ways.

First, today, 13 March,  is the anniversary of 1989 blackout in Quebec, triggered by a much less powerful flare than that of 1859.

Second, it is the beginning of an active solar cycle. The sun has already popped off two X-class flares. We have several years to go, to run the gauntlet of this solar cycle.

We can prepare. We should. We must.


That today is the anniversary of the blackout of Quebec was brought to my attention by Spaceweather. The article has the link to the proposed Solar Shield.

More  on the Carrington Event here. The National Academies sponsored a workshop on the impact of a Carrington Event in 2008; their summary can be found here.

This entry was posted in Astronomy, Disasters, Earth Science, Science, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What If We Were Hit By a Solar Tsunami?

  1. Pingback: Here Comes The Sun | Notes from The Pondonome

  2. schorrmore says:

    Scary. We’re so dependent on systems that are fragile.

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