March 29, 2009
Solar Carrington Event Repeat Today Would Collapse Civilization

If a solar flare on the scale of the September 1, 1859 Carrington Event (named after solar astronomer Richard Carrington who observed it from England) were to happen today we would very quickly revert to a much more primitive level of living that would last for months or years. No electricity means no water. No water means death.

According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people (see map). From that moment, the clock is ticking for America.

First to go - immediately for some people - is drinkable water. Anyone living in a high-rise apartment, where water has to be pumped to reach them, would be cut off straight away. For the rest, drinking water will still come through the taps for maybe half a day. With no electricity to pump water from reservoirs, there is no more after that.

There is simply no electrically powered transport: no trains, underground or overground. Our just-in-time culture for delivery networks may represent the pinnacle of efficiency, but it means that supermarket shelves would empty very quickly - delivery trucks could only keep running until their tanks ran out of fuel, and there is no electricity to pump any more from the underground tanks at filling stations.

These transformers normally take a year to build each. More than just these key transformers would be damaged.

The truly shocking finding is that this whole situation would not improve for months, maybe years: melted transformer hubs cannot be repaired, only replaced.

What I would like to know: How much do these transformers cost? How much would it cost to build duplicates of these transformers and some other key equipment so that we could restore electric power at least for water and a few other key functions in a matter of days or weeks?

BTW, ever notice how much more severe the 19th century was in terms of solar and geological events as compared to the 20th century and early 21st century? The 19th century witnessed the Carrington Event along with the Tambora eruption in 1815 and Krakatoa in 1883. Plus, the 19th century began at the tail end of the Little Ice Age and the Dalton Minimum of sunspot activity lasted till 1820. In the 21st century we could easily get walloped by natural processes just as severe. We can afford to be far better prepared. Why not make at least some of the preparations?

Update: We should also prepare a planetary defense against asteroids.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 March 29 11:18 AM  Dangers Natural General

Engineer-Poet said at March 29, 2009 5:02 PM:

Note that the magnetic effects reached Earth after a delay of hours.  This would allow time to prepare and to shut systems down to prevent damage; it is much quicker to bring powerplants back up after a planned shutdown than to rebuild the transformers and switchgear.

If our grid managers are as smart as I think they are, they're ready for this.  They may even be ready to e.g. ground all phases of long-distance power lines to prevent arcing at the ends that might damage the disconnects.  Once the event is past, remove the grounding bars, check the systems out, and roll repair crews—but that should be a lot less hassle than fixing major EMP damage.

Randall Parker said at March 29, 2009 5:34 PM:


The full text of the article (it is 3 pages - did you read them all?) says that sometimes the event comes at the Earth too quickly for warning. Also (and see the 3rd page) our warning satellite that might give us the needed 15 minutes of warning is old and could fail at any time.

I also wonder whether the proper procedures are in place to bring down the whole grid before something like that hits.

Permalinks on comments: I'm sure there's a way to do that. If someone who knows MovableType wants to tell me how I'll change the template. I'll see what I can find on my own.

Engineer-Poet said at March 29, 2009 8:04 PM:

I missed the "only minutes" at the end of the article; the question is, how frequently does the particle storm follow the flare that closely?  If it does come too quickly for the decision-making system to proactively shut down vulnerable systems, can we trip safeties before equipment is damaged?  This I do not know, but I hope someone's working on it.

Great to see comment permalinks regardless of what it takes to put them on existing pages.

Brian Wang said at March 30, 2009 10:04 AM:

No water from taps in high-apartment. Die of thirst or walk down stairs and get water. Bottled water or go to where working pumps are.
Plus this would only hit on one side of the planet. Plus not every station would get knocked out.

ABB has emergency transformers

Plus aircraft carriers, cruise ships with water purification and other facilities can be docked at places like New York.

However, it is prudent to put up a few more satellites and make the grid more robust. Robotic systems to rapidly ground the facilities.
New superconductor components for fast handling of power spikes etc...

Stan said at March 30, 2009 2:59 PM:

How much would it cost to built the equipment from scratch as opposed to surrounding the transformers with a faraday cage (just in case)?

Seat-Of-The-Pants Engineer said at March 30, 2009 8:41 PM:

Faraday caging the transformers would be ineffective as the overload is induced in the wires, and the overload is conducted into the transformers. Shielding the wires would be uneconomic, requiring more towers to sustain the added weight of insulation and shielding. This would increase the vulnerability of the grid to the more-common ice storm in an effort to protect against the less-common solar CME.

Engineer-Poet said at March 30, 2009 11:03 PM:

The transformers are nowhere near big enough to induce damaging currents in them directly; if they were, individual humans would be also.

The simple way to prevent damage is to disconnect the transformers from their lines, and ground the lines to prevent arcing.  Knowing WHEN to do this, and keeping the control systems up and running as the magnetic storm strikes... aye, there's the rub!

George Carrette said at May 31, 2009 1:46 PM:

60 or 50 cycle electric current and big fat transformers are old technology now.
The best way to transmit electrical energy long distances now is at high DC voltage using high-frequency DC-to-DC power converters.

If many old, legacy technology transformers were damaged then the quickest way to replace them would be as a forced upgrade to the more modern DC transmission technology.

DC into homes? Why not? It is certainly safer, as Thomas Edison aptly demonstrated over 100 years ago.

Tom said at August 3, 2009 11:26 AM:

I can't tell if you're joking, George. Edison's campaign was deeply dishonest. And I'm not sure how you propose to deal with the resistive losses associated with DC. Switchmode power supplies are great, but DC distribution systems don't make sense for anything bigger than a server room.

Ben said at August 7, 2009 3:37 PM:

High voltage DC != regular DC. The resistances are completely different...

Ron Purcell said at August 11, 2009 1:12 PM:

Grounding the power lines at the ends? Watch out - you may have just created a giant CURRENT LOOP consisting of the lines and the earth return path. The huge geomagnetic-induced current in the lines, returning through the earth, would probably burn out the lines instantly - the same current that would burn out the transformers if they were still connected. Leaving the lines open would cause high voltage arcing. No easy solutions exist except possibly large resistors at the ground connections that limit both the closed-circuit current and open-circuit voltage as a balanced compromise, but good luck choosing the resistor value and wattage!

Jason M. said at September 22, 2009 11:58 PM:

A carrington event would fry most of the satellites in orbit, The International Space station crew would die of radiation exposure, and if it didn't kill them quick, the sudden and complete failure of all electrical system on the ISS would kill them. The geomagnetic field of earth would go haywire, most likely magnetic compasses would be useless, older aircraft could fly after the initial event, but would have to have good visual flight conditions to follow roads and highways for navigation, or use a vacuum operated gyro compass. Radio communications would be jammed for awhile, and allot of radio equipment would be ruined as well. Ships at see would have to revert to sextants to navigate since GPS, LORAN-C and OMEGA navigational gear would be useless. People with pacemakers would probably die from the interference. Our population density is far too high to loose transport, we'd run out of food quick. Most modern vehicles wouldn't run anyway due to the electronic fuel injections, older vehicles (think VW bugs, and willys jeeps, chevels, etc.) with breaker point ignition would run, electronic clocks, etc would be useless. Grandfather clocks, wind up watches, etc would run.
on the subject of electricity, AC transmits far better than DC, even at high voltage dc loss due to resistance is outrageous. Transformers will fry due to the DC induced in the windings on top of a ac field, large capacitors could be installed on at the transformers to filter some out, and heavy resistors could be installed on the ground lines to reduce the ground current feeding back up the ground lines into the gear, this would allow the electrical grid to operate longer before they would have to shut down.

James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil said at January 6, 2010 4:33 AM:

It always amuses me to see the ill-concealed glee that doomsday predictors use to state that, we will all die horrible deaths in a matter of weeks.

The millennium bug predictors were also so far wrong that I am amazed they haven't crawled into holes in shame. But noooo, they are now in the ranks of solar flare disasters freaks. As was pointed out, we would have hours of warning and could take emergency measures. Yes, some satellites would be damaged, but you would be amazed at how many are hardened against exactly this kind of event.

The universe is a very harsh place and not at all suited for human life. Even the earth is not all the friendly. Most places on this planet could not support human life. That's why we don't live in the oceans on on Mount Everest. So much for the religious rich that claims this universe was created just for us. LMAO!

Nazgul said at January 25, 2010 12:48 PM:

Is it feasable to shield small electronic equipment from a Carrington type event using lead shielding?
If so, how thick would the shielding have to be?

Bob Badour said at January 25, 2010 2:58 PM:


You can shield against EMP using a farraday cage. Any electrical conductor will do (it doesn't have to be lead) and it doesn't require any special thickness. Aluminum foil should work.

Dale A. Raby said at March 20, 2010 6:01 PM:

I am amused by the comments indicating a dependence upon early warning systems and people smart enough to do what is necessary to save the system within hours. How much warning did we have before Hurricane Katrina? What was done? How about the Three Mile Island event? The reactor itself was trying to shut down, and but for incompetent human interference, it might have succeeded and only been an entry in a log book. What makes anyone think that Big Brother/Sister would "do something" to save us in the event of a geomagnetic storm or other disaster? Depending upon others, especially governments to do the right thing within minutes or hours of even a clear warning is folly.

You wanna survive another Carrington Event or any other disaster of that magnitude? Become self-sufficient or at least lay in some stores for tough times. To survive, you need air, water, food, and shelter. You don't need electricity.

The biggest danger in the case of an event like this is the danger we present to each other. Stupid people in large groups cannot be reasoned with. They can only be avoided.... or shot. Shooting down a mob is not practical... you'd need at least three high rate of fire machine guns with expert gunners to deal with even a few hundred people if they were Hell-bent on over-running your position to get to your food. There would be more than just a few hundred, though. Shooting people down isn't especially moral either. Hiding is better. Travel under such circumstances is simply stupid... so don't worry about your car, you won't be needing it.

Even a bare minimum of preparation... some food, first aid supplies, water, salt, some extra blankets... would help immeasurably. Most people would be out of food within a week or less, they'd be out of water immediately, and would start foraging (looting) within a couple of weeks. Cannibalism would probably not happen until a month or so had passed.

Not a pretty picture, is it?

Green man said at May 9, 2010 6:46 AM:

'delivery trucks could only keep running until their tanks ran out of fuel'? Cars and trucks have a lot of electrical and electronic systems. Surely these would be fried and the truck made immobile even though it had plenty of fuel.

Randall Parker said at May 10, 2010 10:03 PM:

I agree with Dale A. Raby about the need to hide. If civilization really would break down it is better to not be found than to do battle with people who are trying to steal your stuff.

Crystal Abrahams said at July 27, 2010 10:11 PM:

May I quote a small portion of your original article in my book, "2012 Survival Guide"? Thanks!

Einstienear said at August 9, 2010 6:17 AM:

What about Sattelites in orbit? Mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices? will they be fried aswell?

Randall Parker said at August 9, 2010 6:48 PM:


Sure, you can quote an excerpt as long as you attribute it to


Many (all?) satellites would get fried. They do not have the shielding to protect them.

Small gadgets: It is my understanding that they would survive. Bigger stretches of wire are needed to induce the big damaging current flows. But plugged in stuff would likely be at bigger risk. As soon as you suspect a Carrington event start unplugging stuff.

Dale A. Raby,

The key after a collapse is to avoid looking like you have a lot of resources. Hiding is even better.

WestHighlander said at October 2, 2010 10:01 PM:

Let's start the discussion all over with the proper application of Maxwell's Equations and some simple space physics:

First under normal conditions the sun bombards the earth with EM waves (x rays to radio waves) -- luckily the high energy EM waves are mostly absorbed by the atmosphere (think Ozone layer and hard UV) --- this would not change with a Carrington Event (such as the eponymous 1859 "white light" solar flare observed by Carrington)

Second under normal conditions the sun bombards the earth with fast moving charged particles (mostly protons) accompanied with electrons to produce a neutral plasma flow (aka the solar wind) -- this would be enhanced significantly by the Carrington event -- but once again fortunately the earth's magnetic field blocks most of these from entering the earth's atmosphere except near the magnetic poles where the particles can strike the upper atmosphere and give rise to excited gases (the auroras). A lot of the incoming particles are captured by the earths magnetic field and they remain trapped in the magnetic field where they oscillate back and forth from pole to pole (aka the Van Allen Radiation Belts) with the occasional leakage at the pole (the auroras).

So what is the Big deal with a Carrington event or any big flare such as the Quebec electric outage during the magnetic storm of 1989)?

What causes the mega impact the Carrington Event on the earth?

The answer is a combination of the discovery of Michael Faraday in the 19th Century and modern solar watching satellites -- From time to time the sun emits a large blob of its outer atmosphere -- the corona -- When one of these CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejections) composed of a lot of coronal plasma and embedded flux hits the bow shock of the earth (this is where the normal Solar wind is mostly defected around the earth by the earths magnetic field) -- the CME will "Ring the Bell" -- by striking the bow shock -- the earths magnetic field will be compressed on the Sunlit side and then it will rebound

This rapidly moving magnetic field will induce currents in any conductor through which it passes -- this is what Michael Faraday observed when he moved the conductor through the field -- this is what caused the telegraph wires to spark and some telegraphic equipment to catch fire in 1859. The same today is true of high voltage power lines and even pipes in the ground.

To figure out how bad we need to look at Maxwell equations in the integral formulation and Faraday's Law in particular -- the equation translates into the Voltage on a loop of wire depends on the time rate of change of the magnetic flux (area time the field strength) passing through the loop

This immediately tells us two things:

1) the Voltage will get bigger for a bigger area of the loop
2) no area of loop or no loop -- then no voltage

There is a further corollary -- shielding only happens if you can prevent flux penetration -- so aluminum foil will not help -- only a magnetic shield will make a difference -- the best is a superconductor -- so shielding is unlikely to be possible. Nor does it much matter if the wire is on pylons or even buried in the ground -- you just need a return conductor separated from the "wire" --- so the only "safe" approach to communications is either a twisted pair (legacy POTS Telephone) or a coaxial cable (Legacy Cable TV) or fiber optics with no metallic elements (power and /or strength) in the cable

What of the Big Transformers -- the Transformers themselves may be OK -- BUT they must be completely disconnected from the long wires both primary and secondary are potentially vulnerable. It is not at all clear that given the possible voltages that ordinary circuit breakers will be sufficient -- it might be necessary to install slow mechanical switches to be opened after the breakers are opened and the arcs blown-out -- buss bars could even be removed if necessary.

Of course the modifications need to be done well in advance after substantial planning and coordinated preparation. Then comes the critical time -- advance warning will come either from functioning solar imaging satellites or if they are already dead -- by that fact. Then there will be some time to take prompt and dramatic preplanned action. Some solar satellite monitoring is vital to insure that the magnitude and precise direction of the CME is well characterized.

Now the discussion can resume

Ollie said at November 1, 2010 11:28 AM:

Am I missing something here? Is not a Carrington event the same as a super large EMP event?

One problem not addressed, trucks and autos, ships and trains and planes all have computer controls nowadays. Are not these also destroyed by EMP or EMP like effects? Hand fuel pumps won't help since the vehicles themselves can no longer be run or started.

It is the integrated circuits that cannot take overvoltages brought in on the other wires in the device itself. (See any electrical engineering manual nowadays.) These wires act in this situation as power antennas and bring the EMP directly into the vulnerable ICs shorting them out or destroying their internals. As I understand it, even any battery powered equipment would be destroyed, not in the battery, but in the system itself if it is dependent on integrated circuits. Radios, cell phones, etc., all gone from our use. These small devices include pacemakers and other IC controlled devices.

Then ALL our transportation is out, ALL our communications systems, ALL our manufacturing systems, ALL our pharmaceutical producing systems, ALL our food production systems that are now automated. How many people are dependent on some sort of pharmaceutical to survive (Insulin, Coumaden, Penicillin)? How do we produce food in the automated super-farms that we now have so few of and will no longer run if their control systems are gone?

No new parts or components since their production equipment is now gone as well. Are these transformers hand made? I do not think so. That is just the beginning, all of their other parts cannot be made as well by hand.

If it also destroys powerline attached computers then are the controls for power, equipment, industrial controls, city street light, stoplights, sewer plants, and other stuff, like the internet, life support systems in hospitals, and many, many other systems and controls also not out of whack then?

By primitive we mean: hand carts, hand fertilized fields, hand fed animals, horsedrawn wagons, hand pumps, = we are talking pre-1920's style of living. Our economy of today cannot be supported at its current level by pre-1920's technology and methods. Hand made tools, hand made components, hand made parts, hand made refining of ores, etc.

So, did I miss anything?

Faith+1 said at November 1, 2010 11:45 AM:

This is almost, literally, a chicken-little decree. Would things suck for awhile? Sure, but it isn't like mankind would have to start from ground zero. We woldn't suddenly forget how to make things. Every time there is some sort of natural disaster (or man-mad ones) there are predictions of gloom-and-doom and every time is it is overblown as people turn out not to be quite as fragile as the fear mongers proclaim.

I've lived in an area without electricity for weeks. People adapted. We managed. We banded together and made it. Just because your won't get to spend $4 for your coffee at your corner Starbucks doesn't mean civilization is forever doomed.

Bart said at November 1, 2010 12:43 PM:

WestHighlander : See this.

Ollie said at November 1, 2010 1:05 PM:

Well true, one does not have to be totally afraid.

But, a Carrington event is much more than a small limited area or even large regional power outage as we have experienced in the last 100 years or so.

It is the scale that is the problem not the fact that people can adapt. You can adapt far faster if you have transportation from outside the area affected. If the area is too large, for example the entire northern hemisphere or some such then it becomes much more difficult to fix it. It is much more than just a power outage, it is a breakdown of all infrastructures that support civilization in the area effected. What we lose is the level of civilization and send it back to 75 or 100 years ago or before. Those technologies could not support the population we have today without major difficulty. It would also take a while to rebuild the technologies required for even a 1920s level of infrastructure. Weather becomes your enemy. How do you cool and keep foods, how do you heat in sub-zero winter temperatures?

It is generalized over a much larger area (perhaps all of the North American continent or even all of the western hemisphere, or even planet-wide). However, it is not the end of civilization. Other continents may be spared or less damaged...

On the other hand we go back to a pre-1920s style of living for all of North America for a few years. Hard at first, but ever improving. No trucks and trains and planes and ships is a difficult problem to overcome.

However, the initial effects are devastating and may include millions of casualties. Many starvations, many areas unable to get water, etc., no medical suplies after an indefinite period of time, no food, etc. Just think how long for you to personally rebuild a car or truck into a 1920s style of ignition system and a manual transmission? Several months at least. Where do you get your food, water, medicines, and other supplies without transportation of any kind until these few months are over? You have to hunt or scavenge. Well so is everyone else. You have a family to provide for? The problems become orders of magnitude harder to solve.

Regions will be hit harder or less hard depending on the age of their infrastructure, some of which might survive.

So adapting is possible just how hard and how long will it take in a planet-wide Carrington event? Unknown. How do you adapt? Start farming without fertilizers? That takes a long time to adapt to. The first winter for the Jamestown inhabitants is a good learning experience to look at.

These are just a few of the problems and considerations one has to take into account to overcome a Carrington event.

miami said at November 1, 2010 1:15 PM:

After Hurricane Andrew, Miami and points south didn't have electricity for ~a week and running water for 2-3 weeks. Shockingly, everyone who survived the storm survived the aftermath and there weren't riots or gangs of armed gunmen [even in Miami!] roaming the streets looking for 'resources.' And SoFla is pretty damn hot in August if you didn't know.

There will always be an audience desperate to believe in tEotWaWKI. It has yet to happen. Y2K is all too accurate a reference. Acting like we couldn't get fuel out of service stations is ridiculous.

Bryan C said at November 1, 2010 2:03 PM:

I'm not a chicken little, but this scenario worries me. Y2K was a non-event because the scope of the problem was fairly narrow. Most systems were unaffected, and, of the potential failures, most were not worth worrying about. For those systems where such things really were critical, we knew exactly when it was going to happen and could address the problem well ahead of time. None of this is true of a massive solar flare.

miami: Electricity in the aftermath of Andrew was a simple matter of gassing up a generator. If you want running water, you hook it up to a water pump. Now imagine all the generators, all the water pumps, and the fuel pumps at all the gas stations are burned out. That's a better analogy.

Randall Parker said at November 1, 2010 8:04 PM:


No, this is not a chicken little scare for a couple of reasons:

1) Lots of infrastructure that has back-up power only has it for hours or a few days. The back-up generators run out of fuel and the generators are not designed for long term operation.

2) Other infrastructure has no back-up power.

Without electrical infrastructure how do you suppose oil refineries, retail and storage freezers for food, oil and natural gas pipelines, and other key pieces that flow out stuff to us will work? How will water pumps run?

Take away electric power and types of infrastructure that you depend on that you do not even know about will stop working. Our current population density is enabled by this infrastructure. A big city like NYC becomes mostly uninhabitable if electric power is out for weeks, let alone months.


Miami had the rest of the country to ship in supplies. Big IT facilities around Miami had back-up sites outside of the state to switch to. Imagine the rest of the country was down too. Okay, how are the electric pumps going to fill up cars at gas stations? How are electric pumps going to pump oil and gasoline along long pipelines? Which centralized refrigerated facilities are going to distribute frozen food? How will utility billing and credit card billing get down? How will you withdraw money from banks when there's no internet to central server databases? I could go on. Local failures tell you little about what happens when the whole grid goes down for months.


The problem would come from very large pieces of electrical infrastructure getting burned out by excessive current flows. I do not think the home sorts of appliances would suffer so much damage. Lots of centralized stuff would fail first. I could be wrong about that. But most of the learned reports on Solar CMEs (coronal mass ejections) focus on a loss of ability to distribute electricity. The big transformers go due to current induced in lines that run into them.

Mike G said at December 13, 2010 11:55 AM:

I've got solar panels on the roof of my house. Are they going to get fried, too?

Chris Green said at January 19, 2011 7:27 PM:

There will actually be a lot of food, but not for very long. For example, when the event occurs, most of the chickens on chicken farms will immidiately cook. There will be roast chicken everywhere. Sounds innocent enough until you realize what will happen in a corn field. All the corn pops . . . instantly. People that actaully survive the initial POP! will be covered in impact welts and surrounded (and perhaps buried) in popcorn.

mondonico said at February 17, 2011 6:30 AM:

It is simply amazing that we haven't taken a small portion of the billions Washington is printing to purchase spares for the 300 transformers that form the grid, placed them in faraday cages, and distributed them near the ones in service. It is my understanding that this equipment isn't made in the US anymore, and that the lead time for ordering and installing a new one is on the order of 12 months. Having spares in place could save millions of lives.

The first report of the Congressional Commission on EMP came out in 2004 IIRC. What's been done? Maybe a little hardening of equipment at the margins, but the Grid seems as exposed as ever. If we are unprepared and suffer a Carrington event, every congressman and senator will have blood on his or her hands.

mondonico said at February 17, 2011 6:31 AM:

It is simply amazing that we haven't taken a small portion of the billions Washington is printing to purchase spares for the 300 transformers that form the grid, placed them in faraday cages, and distributed them near the ones in service. It is my understanding that this equipment isn't made in the US anymore, and that the lead time for ordering and installing a new one is on the order of 12 months. Having spares in place could save millions of lives.

The first report of the Congressional Commission on EMP came out in 2004 IIRC. What's been done? Maybe a little hardening of equipment at the margins, but the Grid seems as exposed as ever. If we are unprepared and suffer a Carrington event, every congressman and senator will have blood on his or her hands.

Allen said at February 17, 2011 8:14 AM:

Some thoughts -
First: although they're similar, a Carrington event and EMP (as from a high-altitude nuclear blast) are NOT the same, and require different fixes to harden equipment and systems.

Second: there is a lot of overlap in which equipment and systems that need to be hardened (the electrical system, especially the equipment that is connected to long-distance transmission lines, although it's also true that the surges induced in community distribution lines can wreck a lot of residential equipment that isn't really designed to block them).

Third: we have an opportunity in front of us - the "Smart Grid" project. A lot of the effort in that project is currently going to figuring out how to use load-point control (think controls on your electric water heater, air conditioning, etc. to automatically make everyone a little less comfortable when necessary to avoid brownouts) to serve more people with the system capacity we've got. Any competant system design for Smart Grid has to consider automatically shedding and balancing load when parts of the grid become disconnected from each other due to failures and overloads. It would be easy to extend those requirements just a little further, to provide for automatic disconnection and grounding of transmission lines on command when needed. High levels of security and robustness would be needed - command equipment for deliberately shutting down the nation's grid might be added to the President's nuclear "football". Residence-level Smart Grid comm equipment could similarly disconnect your home from community distribution lines, and (because the Smart Grid assumes there's communication between power plants, grid controls, and your home) could give you a "Civil Defense" - like warning that the shutdown was about to happen, and why.

Disclaimer: although I'm an electrical engineer with some interest in this, I'm not a distribution grid designer. If you can improve these thoughts, please offer your ideas. THEN - educate where necessary, plant ideas where appropriate, to take advantage of the window of opportunity to get grid-hardening against Carrington and EMP events into Smart Grid planning.

Wilbur said at April 8, 2011 2:10 PM:

The reason that Y2K was not a huge disaster was because programmers started fixing their code years in advance. I had relatively new code, started about a year and a half in advance and found multiple problems. Everyone laughs at it, however had most companies not reacted we would have been back in the stone age, or at least unable to access internet porn.

T bisty said at April 11, 2011 8:44 PM:

What would happen to the nuclear reactors around the country? Japan failed because the cooling pumps were damaged. It is said that our reactors were built at the same time and have the same design.

Randall Parker said at April 11, 2011 10:29 PM:

T bisty,

To reword your question into a few parts:

1) Would a Carrington Event repeat damage the back-up generators, electrical cabling, or transformers for the water pumps in a nuclear reactor?

I am guessing the answer is No. The problem with a big EMP is induced current high voltage lines running across countrysides. So likely the nukes would be cut off from the grid. But locally they'd be okay initially.

2) Would the cut-off of nukes from the rest of the grid eventually cause problems? I see a potential problem when nukes eventually need to get shut down for maintenance. While operating they can supply their own power to run their water pumps and water filtration systems. But when they shut down they need power from a different source to do that. Well, if they wouldn't be able to get power from distant electric generator plants if the grid is fried. Also, their backup diesel-driven pumps aren't designed for continuous long term operation. Plus, diesel fuel supply would become a big problem when long distance petroleum pipelines aren't powered due to lack of electricity.

So I think the threat to nukes after a Carrington Event is longer term rather than immediate.

dave said at June 17, 2011 12:19 AM:

Please excuse me as I am a nubie here. I am working on my MSEE at CSULB, so I know a bit about the elecrtical workings of car computers. It seems to me that properly sized, fail short zeners on the I/O of sensitive equipment would save them. You'd have to replace the zeners afterward (just like fuses) but they could all be encased in a large pre-made pull plug to replace them all at once. Encasing the electronics in mu-metal (nickel does cool magnetic stuff when combined with iron) would divert the magnetic energy but would do nothing for highly charged particles. If it gets to that point, however, I guess it wont matter to any of us.

As for water, Diesel engines work without an ignition system (just glow plugs). They could drive HUGE water pumps.

PS: How many tons of rock would I have to be under to survive if the Earths magnetic field is overwhelmed ?

Pieter Hugo said at July 4, 2011 1:45 PM:

I suppose everyone will sneer at this...but that is OK.
The Great Engineer of all heavens and earth is still in control and in the event as disastrous as this, mankind may try his best, but will only be an onlooker (If he survives)
Remember how well we handled Katrina and how cleverly we controlled the tsunamis!!! We could not even take charge of 9/11. Finally, "Every head will bow...and every knee will bend!"

Randall Parker said at July 17, 2011 2:23 PM:


Regards diesel-powered water pumps: They assume the existence of the needed quantities of diesel fuel and of the water pumps. The problem is that once the electric power grid is fried lots of electric-powered pumps that move refined petroleum products from refineries to other states will not have power.

Surviving after a CME breaks thru the magnetic field: I doubt we'd get harmed just from being outside on the surface. The main threat is from a huge shift in the magnetic field inducing current flows.

displaced said at July 26, 2011 7:20 PM:

Just got done reading a pretty good book based on this type of event called Our End Of The Lake by Ron Foster
A solar storm has just hit the world causing a EMP event. A emergency manager visiting Atlanta GA must find his way back home after this electromagnetic pulse has stranded him away from his vehicle and his beloved "bug out bag". With 180 miles to go to his destination, David must let his street smarts and survival skills kick in as food and water becomes scarce and societal breakdown proceeds at an unrelenting pace. The band of refugees from a Coronal mass ejection eventually move into a several lake cabins and try to work on their short term and long term survival

WellWhatToDo said at June 9, 2012 12:06 PM:

May I ask a few questions of the obviously knowledgeable group of posters here, albeit a year after the thread?

My biggest concern in any natural disaster, with earthquakes and Carrington events at the top of the list for me/my location, if having survived it, of course, is water for my family and animals (horses included). As a previous poster mentioned, food may be fairly easy to store up. Critical potable water would run out fast.

My friend's property, where my horses are kept 1.2 miles from my home, is on a well. We live on the outskirts of a 25k sized suburb. I've always assumed that in the event of a disaster shutting down infrastructure, we could access the well at least via a generator. My friend's place also has solar feeding the grid and I wondered if we couldn't modify that to run the well pump.

But, after reading this thread, I wonder, will the pump itself (probably pre-1970's) even survive a Carrington event? If so, now I'm wondering if a generator would survive it? If we have to go back to pre-1920's, what mechanical modifications would we have to do to get access to the well? We've lost so much 'common' knowledge in this advanced technological age!

Pre-1920's, horse-drawn wagon's, heck, I'd go for that lifestyle. But, then, my greatest fear after surviving and providing essentials would be my horses being stolen from me. Seriously. As much as I'd like to have hope for humanity doing the right thing, I would fear hitching up my horses to a wagon to distribute needed water to others due to the potential for being accosted, killed even, by despondent others stealing my beloved horses. Scary thoughts.

Anyhow, question: in such a scenario, after a Carrington event, what would be the best method to concentrate our efforts towards in attempting to get the access to the water in the well?

Thanks for any input!

Randall Parker said at June 10, 2012 9:15 PM:


Depends on your budget. Options:

1) Get a mechanical human-powered pump as a back-up. This is your cheapest option by far.

2) Likely the electric pump's electric motor will survive. The bigger problem is going to be to get it electric power. You've got two choices:
- Diesel or gasoline powered electric power generator. You'll need to store fuel for it. Diesel fuel stores longer.
- The solar panels. You'll need some circuitry to do this.

3) Diesel or gasoline pump. You'll need to store fuel for it. Diesel fuel stores longer.

What can you spend?

WellWhatToDo said at July 3, 2012 8:02 AM:

Hi Randall;

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

I really hadn't thought of a budget. But, if I were to through a number out there, I guess in a flash I could a couple hundred or so.

I really like the idea of a human-powered mechanical pump. Seems that would be a fail-safe on many levels. The operators of it may not appreciate it in the event we had to rely on it, though!

Will diesel powered generators survive a Carrington type event? Or am I thinking of an EMP type event knocking out all circuitry?

Randall Parker said at July 5, 2012 8:56 PM:


Regards budget: When buying stuff for other purposes think about dual use technology. You can increase your disaster survivability by buying stuff that serves two purposes. For example, canned goods give you food for everyday use but also survive even as the refrigerator warms up due to lack of electricity to power it.

Diesel generators: I expect them to survive a Carrington event, especially if they are not plugged into the wall at the moment things get fried.

The more severe event is a high altitude nuclear explosion. That causes much greater immediate spikes in current flows. More stuff fries out. I would expect some fraction of cars to get fried and many computers as well.

Galaxy Voyager said at August 7, 2014 10:00 AM:

In Reply to ..... Engineer-Poet said at March 29, 2009 5:02 PM: ... Which says ...
Note that the magnetic effects reached Earth after a delay of hours. This would allow time to prepare and to shut systems down to prevent damage; it is much quicker to bring powerplants back up after a planned shutdown than to rebuild the transformers and switchgear.

If our grid managers are as smart as I think they are, they're ready for this. They may even be ready to e.g. ground all phases of long-distance power lines to prevent arcing at the ends that might damage the disconnects. Once the event is past, remove the grounding bars, check the systems out, and roll repair crews—but that should be a lot less hassle than fixing major EMP damage.

I'm sorry to inform you, but that's Not Quite Correct! ..... These Events cause Geomagnetic Storms which produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire. When a CME hits the Earth’s magnetic field and sends it oscillating, those undulating magnetic fields raise currents in conductive material within and on the Earth itself. The currents that ripple through our planet can easily enter transformers that serve as nodes in regional, national, and global power grids. They can also seep into and corrode the steel in lengthy stretches of oil and gas pipeline.

So it's just like when you get a Power Surge and Your TV or Computer Gets Damaged even though you have it Turned Off. However, it's A LOT WORSE!

Read the More Here ...

Thomas said at November 17, 2014 3:30 AM:

Almost sounds like this could be the start a great tv series. Mass panic is the most worrying part of such events which causes looting and large scale crime in general.

Thomas Jones,
domestic cleaner shepherds bush

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