What happens when a Coronal Mass Ejection hits the Earth?

At approximately 11:00 am Eastern time (15 minutes from now as I type this), the Earth will come into contact with the largest Coronal Mass Ejection since 2005—a huge burst of charged particles and magnetic fields that exploded off the surface of the sun Sunday night.

Scientists have been tracking it as it headed our way. In fact, intrepid astronomy reporter Lee Billings contacted me this morning to tell me that ejection had just passed our Advanced Composition Explorer satellite, which is why we have such a precise estimate of when it would hit Earth. Despite the size of this CME, Billings says it probably won't cause any major damage. However, a larger CME that hit us with less warning very well could be a huge problem. That's because CME's can interfere, to varying degrees, with radio communications, GPS signals, and lots of other electronic stuff that we've come to rely on. What's more, Billings says, our warning system is aging fast. That ACE satellite, for instance, has enough fuel to survive to 2024, but it's equipment is old enough that it's likely to fail at any time.

Lee has written a great piece on Coronal Mass Ejections and the very real risks they pose to modern technology over at Popular Mechanics. It's a great breakdown of what CME's can do and what we do to prepare for them that manages to get the risks right, without becoming too hyperbolic and apocalyptic-y. It's 10:59 AM now. Happy CME!

A geomagnetic storm 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.

On October 29, 2003, power grids around the world felt the strain from the geomagnetic currents. In North America, utility companies scaled back electricity generation to protect the grid. In Sweden, a fraction of a CME-induced electric current overloaded a high-voltage transformer, and blacked out the city of Malmo for almost an hour. The CME dumped an even larger mass of energetic particles into Earth’s upper atmosphere and orbital environment, where satellites began to fail because of cascading electronics glitches and anomalies. Most were recovered, but not all. Astronauts in low-Earth orbit inside the International Space Station retreated to the Station’s shielded core to wait out the space-weather storm. Even there, the astronauts received elevated doses of radiation, and occasionally saw brief flashes of brilliant white and blue—bursts of secondary radiation caused when a stray particle passed directly through the vitreous humor of the astronauts’ eyes at nearly light-speed.

Flares and CMEs from the Sun continued to bombard the Earth until early November of that year, when at last our star’s most active surface regions rotated out of alignment with our planet. No lives were lost, but many hundreds of millions of dollars in damages had been sustained.

The event, now known as the Halloween Storm of 2003, deeply worried John Kappenman, an engineer and expert in geomagnetic storm effects. The Sun had fired a clear warning shot. Its activity roughly follows an 11-year cycle, and severe space weather tends to cluster around each cycle’s peak. The Sun’s next activity peak is expected to occur this year or next, and the chance of more disruptive geomagnetic storms will consequently increase

The video above shows what the last big CME, in 2005, looked like. Video Link


  1. Fascinating!  Coronal Mass Ejection sounds so much more… scientific than “sun fart”.  I hope that it’s not SO intense that it messes with my connection to our WiFi printer (I was only just able to get it set up late last night).  

  2. They can also seep into and corrode the steel in lengthy stretches of oil and gas pipeline.

    No wai!  Really?

    I’m very tempted to call shenanigans here, but then, I know little of pipelines.

    1. No it’s true.  Look up cathodic reactions.  Different metals connected together will generate a voltage potential between them and will typically cause one of the metals to corrode or oxidize.  By applying an offsetting voltage you can either speed up or slow down this process.

      A huge magnetic field from the sun is noticeable across large grids of pipes as a voltage.  The company I work for designed electronics to provide cathodic protection of natural gas lines.  Typically applying a voltage of only a couple hundred of mili-volts is enough to project the pipes. 

      The other interesting part is that the data from the logs on this equipment was used by a local university to study the solar flares.  They were able to correlate data from the offset voltage they were applying to the solar activity that the earth is being bombarded with!

      1. It happens even with much smaller, but much closer, sources of EM radiation.  When they put up the CN Tower and its big antenna in downtown Toronto CN had to pay to install cathodic protection systems for the girders in some of the older office towers.

  3. 11:45 a.m  E.S.T.  and the satellites are still beeping?

    PowerGrid unaffected?

    No Riots?

    Bah, That was no fun.

  4. Is the ACE satellite itself aged/damaged by solar activity?

    Is the Mars mission that’s carrying the Curiosity rover in the path of this?

    I’m always happy to see news of these because of the awesome aurora photography/video, but what a bummer if some stray particle on the roulette wheel comes up double-zeroes and knocks out a key non-redundant bit of data.

  5. Sweet!  Now all my prepper preparing won’t go to waste!  Enjoy being stuck in the dark ages guys, I’ll still have an internet connection via my generator and stockpiled nachos!

          1. I did, now everything looks the same!  Boy, CMEs are worse than SOPA protests.

            I even tried turning it off and on again, no help.

  6. Coronal Mass Ejection? Meh. I doubt that it will cause any problems whatsoe#@ƒ´∂¬¬ß¬¬

  7. Question to you who are knowledgeable about electricity/radio/magnetism:  This morning I noticed a quiet “buzz” or feedback-type sound coming from my crappy PC subwoofer.  This is was a new noise and I’ve never had any sort of interference get picked up on this subwoofer before.  I muted all input sources and turned the volume all the way up and from between 7am and 8am PST I heard some of the most wild EMI noises I’ve ever heard come out of my subwoofer.  Left for work at 8.

    Could this be from the CME, even though it hadn’t hit earth at that time?

    1. Maybe some kind of secondary effect?  Some local (and perhaps paranoid) neighbour/business/antenna facility turning on some kind of shielding in advance of the CME?

      1. Huh, I found this Gizmodo story when I woke up.  It says that the storm is ongoing as of the time of it’s posting, it was posted last night so….  perhaps the full force of the storm hit at 11am est?

  8. Funny, it’s been a little over an hour now and I haven’t seen any effects at all. Last Thursday (the 19th) in the early afternoon when every website I tried to get to (including BoingBoing) to suddenly became unavailable I would have worried.

    Now I’m just wishing I lived close enough to the North Pole because, if there are any lingering after effects, I bet they’ll make the aurora even more spectacular than usual.

  9. it’s clouded over completely and raining where I am, so no chance of seeing anything… typical English weather…

  10. So that’s what gave me my X-Ray vision this morning. Heck of a thing! I’d say more but right now I’m, um, a bit distracted. 

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