Originally published October 11 2009
Sun's Plasma Balls Could Wipe Out Human Civilization - Technology is the Achilles Heel
by David Gutierrez, staff writer
(NaturalNews) Natural fluctuations in the sun's atmosphere could cause it to fire a giant plasma ball at Earth, shutting down the planet's electric grids and leading to widespread social collapse, according to a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Funded by NASA, the report draws attention to naturally occurring events known as coronal mass ejections (CME), in which a ball of plasma -- the charged, high-energy particles that comprise stars -- is fired from the sun. If such a ball strikes the Earth, it could produce rapid changes in the planet's magnetic field, leading to a surge of direct current in the long-range power lines that carry electricity through modern power grids.
Modern power grids are designed to carry electricity at extremely high voltage, making them especially susceptible to this kind of magnetic disruption. What they are not designed to do, however, is carry direct current. Transformers are particularly vulnerable, and sudden influx of direct current could cause the wiring inside the devices to melt. The NAS report estimates that within 90 seconds of a plasma ball hitting the Earth's magnetic field, power would be knocked out to 130 million people in the United States alone. The same effect is likely throughout the world.
"A really large storm could be a planetary disaster," said power industry analyst John Kappenman.
In the First World, where everything from transportation to food and water distribution depends on electricity, this could create a humanitarian catastrophe.
"It's just the opposite of how we usually think of natural disasters," Kappenman said. "Usually the less developed regions of the world are most vulnerable, not the highly sophisticated technological regions."
According to the report, potable water would be one of the first losses in the event of such a disaster. Because water pumping relies on electricity, people would have access to tap water only for about half a day, until the amount already in the system ran out. High-rises, which rely on water being pumped to upper floors, would lose water immediately.
All electric-powered transport would stop at once, and automobiles could only run until they ran out of gas, since the pumps at gas stations also rely on electricity. This would quickly cause the shelves at stores to run bare, since the modern "just-in-time" delivery method relies on restocking shelves as they run out, with minimal storage inside shops themselves.
Backup generators at places like hospitals could only run until they ran out of fuel. According to the report, this translates into 72 hours of minimal care for only the most vulnerable patients. The absence of refrigeration would cause food and many prescription drugs to quickly spoil.
The NAS report notes that a technological meltdown on this scale might be impossible to undo. Pumping natural gas or oil requires electricity, and modern transport networks are required to keep coal plants supplied. Nuclear power plants automatically shut down if the power grid fails, and cannot be turned back on until the grid is back to normal. Very few spare transformers exist, meaning that new ones would need to be manufactured to replace most of the burned-out ones. Again, the lack of industrial infrastructure would make this a major challenge.
"We're moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster," said Daniel Baker, chair of the committee that produced the report.
Although the scenario may sound fantastic and unlikely, scientists warn that there have been precedents. In 1859, a CME known as the Carrington event produced auroras as far south as the equator and caused severe disruptions to the world's telegraph systems. In 1989, a direct current overload in the power grid cut off electricity to 6 million people in Quebec province, Canada. And in 2006, a fluctuation in a small part of Germany's power grid caused a cascading power failure through the wider European grid.
"Scientists are conservative by nature and this group is really thoughtful," said Carrington expert James Green of NASA. "This is a fair and balanced report."
Sources for this story include: www.newscientist.com.
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