SJSU The Effects of Coronal Mass Ejections on Earth Question

Topic: Coronal Mass Ejections

Barnhardt: Tell me, Hilda, does all this frighten you? Does it make you feel insecure?

Hilda: Yes sir, it certainly does.

Barnhardt: That's good, Hilda; I'm glad.

(from “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, 1951)

This week’s topic is one that physical geography textbooks seldom mention. But coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and their potential impact on civilization are in fact the perfect topic to connect the previous two weeks: our relationship to the Sun, and the importance of networks in our lives. Here’s an overview:


The first video below is intended to get you thinking about the dynamical complexity of the sun, and how its changes might directly influence us.

Examine: The Sun in 4K - Viewed By NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory [Space Videos]

Watch: The Carrington Event - A Short Documentary [Fascinating Horror]

Watch: How Solar Storms Could Knock Out Our Power Grid [NOVA PBS Official]

Watch: The Grid vs. The Next Big Solar Storm [Real Engineering]

Watch: What If a Massive Solar Storm Hit the Earth? [What If]

About a year before COVID-19 made its appearance, I had begun to discuss epidemics and pandemics in some of my courses, including this one. I’d always also asked students in this course to consider the consequences of a large earthquake, which we have thankfully not yet experienced. So hopefully I’m a poor oracle of disaster.

But partly because I have been asking all of my students to think more about the changing role of networks in our lives, and partly because of last week’s discussion of the Sun-Earth system, I want you to think about the consequences of a Carrington-like CME occurring now. Think about how very different the world is now, and how vulnerable we have become to damage in systems of survival. In 1859, the world population was about 1.3 billion; it is now almost 8 billion. In 1859, the only potentially sensitive circuits in existence were telegraphs, and the videos describe some of the strange things that happened to them. Now, nearly every source of life support for urban dwellers in developed nations, at least, may depend on sensitive electronic circuits and devices.

In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (the original version), a visitor from space presses his demands by temporarily disabling all electrical circuits on Earth. All devices requiring electricity, including vehicles, became inoperable. A severe CME would be different. Many of its effects might pass with the event itself, but a great deal of permanent damage requiring time-consuming repair and replacement would be inevitable. In wonder, would our governing bodies, which seem increasingly to live on the Internet, survive even a partial disconnection? Unlike an earthquake or flood, this would be a global event.

Homework 5:

  1. Describe the nature of Coronal Mass Ejections, and try to estimate, based on the videos or websites you visited, how much time the Earth might have to prepare for an event if astronomers discovered that one was brewing, and how much time we’d have if one actually occurs and is on a collision course with the Earth. If we sustained a direct hit, what is likely to happen immediately? What, in your view, is likely to happen over time? Might agrarians or hunter-gatherers or others disconnected from the world economy cope better with the consequences? What might be done, given the inescapably globalized nature of the world we live in, to reduce and overcome the impact of such an event? Think for example about the video on network robustness and resilience from two weeks ago.