What if a “Perfect CME” hit Earth?

Dr. Tony Phillips is a professional astronomer and science writer, best known for his authorship of the always excellent Below is an abridged version of his article from Jan. 21, 2021 entitled: “What if … A Perfect CME Hit Earth?

You’ve heard of a “perfect storm.” But what about a perfect solar storm? A new study just published in the research journal Space Weather considers what might happen if a worst-case coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth.

Spoiler alert: You might need a backup generator.

For years, researchers have been wondering, what’s the worst the sun could do? In 2014, Bruce Tsurutani (JPL) and Gurbax Lakhina (Indian Institute of Geomagnetism) introduced the “Perfect CME” — it would be fast, leaving the sun around 3,000 km/s, and aimed directly at Earth. Moreover, it would follow another CME, which would clear the path in front of it, allowing the storm cloud to hit Earth with maximum force.

SOHO image of a coronal mass ejection (CME). MORE

None of this is fantasy.

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has observed CMEs leaving the sun at speeds up to 3,000 km/s. And there are many documented cases of one CME clearing the way for another.

Perfect CMEs are real.

Tsurutani and Lakhina showed that a Perfect CME would reach Earth in only 12 hours, allowing emergency managers little time to prepare, and slam into our magnetosphere at 45 times the local speed of sound.

In response to such a shock, there would be a geomagnetic storm perhaps twice as strong as the Carrington Event of 1859. Power grids, GPS and other high-tech services could experience significant outages.

Sounds bad?

Well, it turns out it could be even worse.

In 2020, a team of researchers led by physicist Dan Welling of the University of Texas at Arlington took a fresh look at Tsurutani and Lakhina’s Perfect CME. Space weather modeling has come a long way in the intervening 6 years, so they were able to come to new conclusions:

Sample results from computer modeling a Perfect CME impact. The images show the distortion and compression of Earth’s magnetic field as well as induced currents in the atmosphere. Source: Welling et al, 2020.

“We used a coupled magnetohydrodynamic(MHD)-ring current-ionosphere computer model,” says Welling. “MHD results contain far more complexity and better reflect the real-world system.”

The team found that geomagnetic disturbances in response to a Perfect CME could be 10 times stronger than Tsurutani and Lakhina calculated, especially at latitudes above 45 to 50 degrees. “[Our results] exceed values observed during many past extreme events, including the March 1989 storm that brought down the Hydro-Quebec power grid in eastern Canada; the May 1921 railroad storm; and the Carrington Event itself,” says Welling.

A key result of the new study is how the CME would distort and compress Earth’s magnetosphere. The strike would push the magnetopause down until it is only 2 Earth-radii above our planet’s surface. Satellites in Earth orbit would suddenly find themselves exposed to a hail of energetic charged particles, potentially short-circuiting sensitive electronics. A “superfountain” of oxygen ions rising up from the top of Earth’s atmosphere might literally drag satellites down, hastening their demise.

For specialists, Table 1 from Welling et al’s paper compares their simulation of a Perfect CME impact (highlighted in yellow) to past extreme events:

You don’t have to understand all the numbers to get the gist of it: a Perfect CME strike would dwarf many previous storms. And given the current state of play —with Earth’s rapidly waning magnetosphere now occurring at the same time as the ramp-up of Solar Cycle 25— the next big solar storm doesn’t necessarily need to be “Perfect” in order for it to cause significant and widespread damage–many researchers are also calling this ramp-up the ideal window for the next big one to hit (between now and 2025-or-so).

Earth is overdue for another Carrington-like Event.

In fact, we likely just missed one.

In July 2012 (during the ramp-up of Solar Cycle 24), NASA and European spacecraft watched an extreme solar storm erupt from the sun and narrowly miss Earth: “If it had hit,” announced Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado; “we would still be picking up the pieces.”

As Welling et al conclude in their paper, “Further exploring and preparing for such extreme activity is important to mitigate space-weather related catastrophes.”

There is still so much we don’t know.

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Grand Solar Minimum + Pole Shift

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5 Thoughts to “What if a “Perfect CME” hit Earth?”

  1. AZ1971

    In July 2012 … NASA and European spacecraft watched an extreme solar storm erupt from the sun and narrowly miss Earth: “If it had hit,” announced Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado; “we would still be picking up the pieces.”

    Actually we would still be picking up the pieces for decades yet to come.

    With so much of the world automated and computerized — from banking, water and sanitation services, fuel extraction/processing and delivery, food production and distribution, cars and planes and trains rendered useless, and more — the think tanks that study this kind of thing suggest it would set back humanity by more than 100+ years and likely kill off 4+ BILLION people as every system around the planet ground to a halt. Riots would erupt over food crises, water would be unavailable, people would revert to feral behaviors and form tribes in a desperate quest to secure essentials like food and water.

    I don’t fear a pandemic. I fear Carrington 2.0. It will be thousands of times more devastating to global unrest than we assume it to be, and there’s no way to stop it.

    1. prioris

      so many unknown variables that we don’t know how it could go down and when. If the power is lost long enough, what you say will happen.

      homeland security does have the ability to replace some portion of transformers with new ones in one or two weeks. the new ones take two weeks to build. we don’t know how many they have built for emergency.

      1. prioris

        They did implement the plan to build transformers and executive orders since 2012 event. They just tell public it is related to terrorism. Sun is number one terrorist … lol.

      2. AZ1971

        Even if you have them built, without circuits replaced in the trucks to haul the transformers to where they’re needed, those truck beds are just nice places for them to take a nap.

        Think about how EVERYTHING these days is seemingly powered with some kind of tiny electronic circuit board—from your iPhone to bank to car to the water meter to your natural gas gauge to every household appliance and etc. EVERYTHING around us we take for granted based off the idea that it’s OK and won’t be hit by a massive CME. The problem is that it’s not. All of our GPS, weather satellites, personal computers, etc. will have those tiny circuit boards jumped and fried. Good luck replacing all of that stuff when the factories that build them are as equally dependent on electronics.

        It’s not going to be a pretty picture when the next big Carrington CME hits.

  2. GlobalBlackoutPrevention

    Earth lasers’ plasma shield CAN prevent a devastating global blackout/all nuclear plants’ blasting by asteroid explosion (as in Tunguska-1908 & Chelyabinsk-2013) or solar storm hit!
    NINE times near-miss extinction so far: 1972, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2012, 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021

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