Solar Flares, CME's, and the EMP Threat

Image From:
What an EMP or CME event may look like today

Powered by RedCircle

The National Center for Atmospheric Research has predicted that the upcoming “Sunspot Cycle 25” may well be among the strongest ever observed by humans. With a maximum sunspot number as high as 260! For comparison, the last cycle peaked at a mere 116 on the scale.

What does that mean?


Now first off, we’ll start at the main source of all this, the sun. “Sol” being Latin name of the Roman Sun God, and “Solar” meaning of or from the sun


The sun  has what we call “Solar Cycles”. A period of roughly 11 years that features a Solar Minimum and a Solar Maximum. 


The Solar Minimum is the time when there is the smallest number of observed sunspots, and the Solar Maximum is the time where the most sunspots are observed. 

What we call Sunspots appear on the surface of the sun as dark spots that stand out from the normal surface of the sun. The average sunspot is about the same size as planet earth. They appear as dark spots because they are cooler than the surrounding surface of the sun by a few thousand degrees and they also represent powerful disturbances in the Suns Magnetic field. The magnetic field around these sunspots can be around 2500x the strength of the earth’s magnetic field.


Studying and hopefully one day fully understanding this cycle matters because these regions of the sun that feature sunspots, are usually the origin of Coronal Mass Ejections, CME for short, and Solar Flares. Which as you probably know can have all kinds of effects here on Earth from the Aurora borealis, to the technological apocalypse inducing electromagnetic pulse that we’ll get into here in a minute. 


First let’s look at the difference between a CME and a Solar Flare. 


A Coronal Mass Ejection is just how it sounds, an ejection of mass, actual matter rom the sun. As the powerful magnetic fields around sunspots interact, they can hurl plasma away from the sun. These charged particles are flung into space like a cosmic shotgun blast. The speed at which these particles are ejected can vary from half a million miles per hour to nearly 7million miles per hour and thus reach earth in a matter of hours to a few days.

Above are a CME from 2012 that narrowly missed earth, and a CME from 2002 photographed by NASA

A Solar Flare is radiation energy, moving at the speed of light, and that energy can reach earth in about 8 minutes. If you go back to that idea of the Cosmic Shotgun, the CME is plasma BBs or Buckshot, and the Flare is the Muzzle Blast.

A CME and a Flare have different effects on earth as well. 


A Solar Flare can disturb the atmosphere and temporarily disrupt radio signals that we use to communicate. From Boats to planes to cell phones. Not to mention satellites in orbit. 


A CME, being physically charged particles, interacts with Earth’s magnetic field, this oscillation o the magnetic field creates currents which head to the poles, causing the Auroras at the North and South Poles. A strong enough blast of charged particles can cause enough distortion in the magnetic field that it too can affect radio signals and even GPS, and at the extreme, the particles from a CME can induce enough magnetic field shenanigans to induce current in our own electrical grids and systems which could easily lead to disaster! Think Electro-Magnetic Pulse Apocalypse scenario.


The good news is that Earth is small, far away from the sun, and a moving target, usually these things miss. Institutions like NASA continuously monitor the sun for these events in an effort to understand the nature of the sun to enable us to better prepare for the long-term future,  and to provide warning of immediate impending doom should the sun point our way with a big one.


The bad news is, we aren’t all that prepared. Solar Flares and CME’s usually happen together at the same time, and the sun has hit us lots of times, and even recently. We still don’t really understand the way the sun works. From what we do know, early warning can help in some cases but can’t fully alleviate our inadequacy. We are more dependent on Radio and Electrical grids than at any other point in human history. And in a minute well discuss how we now possess the ability through nuclear weapons to do much of this to ourselves at will!

The Aurora’s the sun causes happen all the time. People travel from all over the world to see them. They’re beautiful and are even one of the default backgrounds available on Zoom video calls. What’s less known is the incidences of severe direct hits on earth. This is for a couple reasons, we only really started paying any real meaningful attention at all to this in the mid 1700s, and we didn’t have any significant use of electronics or radio until the later 1800’s.


The first major incident we can point to is the infamous Carrington Event of 1859. An intense amount of charged particles hit the earth, shorting out Telegraph lines all over the world which in turn sparked many many fires, The Aurora produced by this event could be seen as far south as Cuba! 


We now know the Carrington Event, named after one of the scientists who first correlated it with the sun, started with the observation of stronger than usual Auroras at the poles, a clear sign of a solar flare, then within days the CME arrived and wreaked havoc. The resulting near global aurora was so bright, that it was reported that Miners would wake up hours early thinking it was daylight and began making breakfast. Still others thought the lightshow was perhaps the beginning of the end of the world.

We’ve come a long way technologically since 1859, and you probably have more than one electronic device with you at all times, plus our expansive power grid, and the countless other electronics that we use on a daily basis, and the especially vulnerable Communications and GPS satellites in orbit that do not have as much natural shielding from the earth. If the Carrington Event happened today its estimated that it could cause trillions of dollars in damages and take a full 10 years to recover from. 


Think about that for second in terms of 2020. A virus that the vast majority of people recover from has kicked the world straight in the groin and led to trillions of dollars lost across the globe. And atleast one estimate published in the American Medical Association Journal estimates it may take some $16 Trillion of expenditure before we recoup. Do you think there would be less panic, and the situation would be less severe if virtually all of our communications, and electrical equipment our economies now depend on from cars, to banks, to hospitals, failed in the course a single day?


Another significantly less severe CME hit Canada on March 13th, 1989. The preceding Aurora was visible as far south as Texas, Power was knocked out in parts of Canada for most of the day, accompanied by communications disruptions and satellite outages. 


Then In 2012 of all years, a Carrington Event sized CME only missed the Earth in its Orbit by about 9 days!


The threat from our own sun is very real, and is one we should take seriously, and it seems like it should be especially so in an era where virtue signaling concern for public health and safety based on quote unquote Science is all the rage. But I suspect for this example the quotes probably don’t apply, since this isn’t something that allows you to control the general daily behavior of free people.


But on that note, how about the looming threat of the manmade bomb induced Electro-Magnetic Pulse?


You may have noticed this before if you’ve ever been around spinning motor and experienced radio interference, or maybe you’ve seen warnings on some equipment about people with pacemakers being near them.  


The idea is the same as the CME, fluctuations in a Magnetic Field induce current. Which can interfere with signals or even damage electronic components. This isn’t a conspiracy, the US and Russian governments have researched, tested, and proven it several times dating back to the 1950s. 


The way it works, a nuclear warhead is detonated in the air above a target. The explosion creates enough energy in the area to free electrons from nitrogen and oxygen atoms, these electrons interact with the earth’s magnetic field and induce current in the nearby area below. The bigger the bomb and the closer to the north or south pole it is detonated, the bigger the effect.


“Starfish Prime” is the name of one major test the United States conducted on July 9th, 1962 launched from the infamous Johnston Island in the direction of Hawaii. It detonated some 250miles above the surface the yield of the bomb was 1.4 megatons, and it produced a red and yellow aurora at the site, and also on the opposite side of earth! The resulting EMP effect knocked out streetlights and telephones in Hawaii, many satellites in orbit, and even damaged electronics in New Zealand more than 1000 miles away!

Starfish Prime Detonation and Aurora

Starfish Prime Aurora

That same year, The Soviet Union tested its own EMP. At about 300 kilotons Soviet Test 184 was smaller yield than Starfish Prime but was done over Kazakhstan much closer to the North Pole than Hawaii, and much more populated. Though not much was officially recorded by the Soviet Union, we know it virtually destroyed a phone line network in a 350mile radius that was even protected by fuses and sparked at least one fire.

Nuclear arms have since proliferated around the world. Even to poorer countries like North Korea, and quite possibly Iran, and it might only take one to spark a catastrophe. 


More insidious, but safer non-nuclear EMP inducing  bombs are being researched all the time. The main idea is that a smaller non-nuclear explosion could generate very high frequency radiation that achieves the same effect though much more localized to a specific target with none of the fallout associated with nuclear material.

Whether it’s the sun or humanity itself, the threat of the EMP effect is very very real. So, what can, and should we do? 


As an individual, consider having some analog electronics around. A hand cranked radio or a solar panel for charging batteries. And think about Faraday Cages and how you might make one. Basically, it’s a metal box or shield, that directs the current around and away from whatever is inside, the struggle though is that is has to be completely sealed in conductive material, but it wouldn’t be hard to make a small one for a few small survival gadgets. You might also consider a classic car that isn’t ran entirely by computers and a gas generator.  


As a society, the main thing is designing new grid systems that can successfully divert excess power in a rapid fashion and avoid dangerous overloads and overheating. This will require lots of time, strategic planning, and of course money. But most of the technology needed to replace that existing transformer on your telephone pole already exists!


The science of the sun is far from settled! And the National Center for Atmospheric Research is not the only entity testing theories and hypotheses centered around the solar cycle. We really know very little about the sun. It’s really only recently that we’ve begun to understand the solar wind thanks to men like Eugene Parker in the latter part of the 20th century. And the Parker Solar probe launched in 2018 that as of this podcast has orbited the sun about 5 times and after its 24th orbit sometime in the mid 2020s, it will attempt to “touch” the sun.


The science of the nuke and the bomb however is settled. And at this point, will depend more on human psychology….

Side Note, the classic green color you often see associated with an Aurora is due to effected Oxygen around 60miles up in the atmosphere, Red Auroras are from Oxygen about 200miles up. Nitrogen is responsible for blues and purples.


All I had for this episode Cya Next time!