On 1 September 1859 Richard Carrington observed a series of major coronal mass ejections from the sun – massive solar flares, the largest of which it the Earth’s magnetosphere some 18 hours later (normally it takes around 72 hours). The result was massive auroral displays across the world, even close to equatorial latitudes, and disruption of the telegraph system in a number of nations. Analysis of ice cores suggest that flares of this magnitude occur every 500 years or so. If such an event happened now the consequences would be far more serious.
The main problem would be damage to electricity grids worldwide. Such storms can trigger overloads by inducing large currents, which shut them down. One example was in 1989 when a geomagnetic storm took down power grids across Quebec, Canada. A Carrington Event, on the other hand would do far more damage, potentially destroying transformers on a continental scale. If that happened there are not enough in storage to replace all the ones that might suffer damage. Additional transformers would have to be manufactured, which could take months. And the factories would meanwhile be without power…
However, the best case scenario would be the detection of such a solar event at least a day in advance followed by an orderly shutdown of the grid for the duration of the storm. Nevertheless, it is not a simple task to restart power generation and grid coordination on a continental scale. Electrical power might be out for up to a week before it comes online again.
Of course, it is not merely a Carrington Event that could cut electricity supplies on a vast scale and keep them offline for weeks. Other scenarios are considerably worse and perhaps more likely. For example, a high yield nuclear weapons exploded outside the atmosphere would not only wreck the electricity grid but destroy virtually all electronic devices in a thousand kilometer radius. That includes, but is not limited to, computers, phones, cellular towers, car ignition systems, radios and TVs. It would in effect destroy the modern world in seconds. Recovering from that would take decades and indirectly cause mass fatalities.
Or perhaps a cyber-attack on infrastructure could shut down services for days or weeks.
Another possibility would be a viral pandemic such as H5N1, SARS or something like the 1918 Flu getting out of control. We could expect maybe one third of the global population infected with a ten percent mortality rate. In other words, over a period of a few months there would be a quarter of a billion dead. One in three incapacitated for weeks and one in thirty dead. All but essential services would cease, and perhaps even those would fail under the strain as people stayed at home and did not risk contact with others.
Such scenarios come closer to the civilization destroying possibilities of nuclear war, asteroid strike or zombie apocalypse! Our focus is going to be more modest – surviving a month without electricity supplies. It is not going to focus on country living folk with detached house, garden and bunker stocked survivalist style. It is aimed at someone who is living in a city, in an apartment in a highrise building who is living a normal life. We are also going to assume a few hours of notice, so that most people will be able to get home before transport stops and the lights go out.
There are also other things to consider. No electricity means no money from ATMs, no pumps working at the fuel station, no supermarket checkouts working, no credit card processing working. Phones, both landline and mobile might keep working for a while but that cannot be guaranteed. Radio and TV stations will likely have their own backup generators, as will hospitals. However, you will have no power for your computer, TV or radio. Also, if we are talking pandemic nobody is going to want to use or run, public transport, supermarkets or schools – just about everyone stays off works and away from crowds.
It is also assumed that there will be a civil defense or military emergency response. First to re-establish water supplies and then to restore electricity to critical industries and food transport, storage and distribution. None of this is likely to be of much use within the first week. Just consider how long it takes to get emergency aid to people in an earthquake zone, and them multiply across a nation or continent.
What to do first…
The very first thing to do is prepare for such an eventuality ahead of time. This means stockpiling the minimum necessary for you and your family for one month of effectively being cut off from civilization. The most obvious needs are going to be food and water. What is not so obvious until it happens is that as soon as the power goes out so does your fridge and freezer, the cooker (both gas and electric), and some time later probably the water supply and hence your toilet and sewage system. So, on the day fill your bath with cold water and start eating the food in the freezer, beginning with the perishables like ice cream.
The problem with all this is twofold. First, ordinary people are not “survival nuts”, do not want to spend much money on preparations for things they believe will never happen and generally do not have much space for stockpiling what they believe might be needed. So home generators and fuel will not be there, nor will any special shelter or clothing.
What to Stock…
The most essential item is not food but water. Most fat Westerners can go a month without food but three days without water is about the limit for most people. After that they will drink almost anything. Hence the bathtub full of the last water being pumped before the shutdown. As for quantity, budget a liter a day minimum in winter and considerably more during a hot summer. The bath will likely hold around one hundred liters. Having collapsible plastic water bottles is a good idea, but if not then fill any container you can find and hope that the civil government’s first response is getting the water supply working again. At some point, if this does not happen, the water available to you is going to be of poor quality, so suitable filters are a must-have item.
Which brings us to food. You need to have an intake of around 2000 kCal per day for an adult, which corresponds to about 600 grams of rice per day or 20 kg per month. It might be boring, but its cheap and easy to store. The same is true of porridge oats, which does not need cooking. Also add in some other high calorie foods that are easy to store, most notably sugar. While these will keep you alive they are both boring and deficient in various vitamins. So, have a stock of multivitamins and also some “luxuries” such as canned fruit.
Cooking is probably going to be a luxury. Assuming you have something like a small camping stove and a few gas bottles you might be able to prepare one hot meal a day for a couple of weeks. However, you also need to learn some tricks to save on fuel. The most basic is to have on hand a thermos flask, preferably stainless steel (difficult to break). Since the nutritional value of rice is maximized by cooking you simply add boiling water to the rice and put it in the thermos flask to cook.
Indeed, there are many such survival tips available in numerous books, so while your neighbors are looting the local mini-mart you can loot the bookshop. You will probably not have much competition there… However, it is best to buy one or two now – and not an eBook, but paper.
Once the water supplies cease you will no longer be able to flush the toilet. Since you presumably still have some water (the bath) you can allocate a small amount to flush solids. However, a lot of people are not going to be able to do this so if you live in a highrise building it might get pretty medieval in the streets below unless civil authorities (or you) start digging latrines in the park or any other open space.
Washing – simple, don’t wash. Being smelly is not fatal. At best, use a wet cloth and remember, every drop of water you use is water you do not get to drink.
Once the water runs out then you are in trouble, and will need to get it from outside somewhere. It is very unlikely to be clean, so have a good water filter available, both for bulk processing and filter straws for direct drinking from dirty water. Such filters are available from places like eBay for around $40 and can filter up to 200 liters of contaminated water. This is a possible life saver.
The basics are the same as you would need if you are going camping, with a few differences. Shelter is not needed since you are at home. So…
Cutting tools – both for utility and defense. Something like a machete is good at both.
First aid kit, including plenty of antiseptic, something to stitch woulds and (depending on how legal it is) anesthetics, basic antibiotics and painkillers. Having a broken bone with none of those in this kind of situation is not merely agonizing but possibly fatal.
Fire starters – matches, lighters (a disposable pack), tinder
A few liters of kerosene if it is not illegal to store it and an old fashioned hurricane lamp (with a spare wick).
A good LED torch with rechargeable batteries as well as single use.
Something to dig a hole. This might be for an improvised latrine, or maybe to bury a body if things get really bad.
Toilet paper – bulk buy, and ration.
A cheap radio, kept wrapped in aluminum foil, and some batteries both disposable and rechargeable.
A CB radio if you are really keen to hear what your neighbors might be doing.
Something of a luxury, a solar battery charger may well come in handy but can be pricey. Remember, if the cell network is still operating it’s no good if you cannot recharge your phone.
First off, do not tell your neighbors about your preparations. A best they might laugh. At worst, after seeing their families starving after the first week or two they will remember and come asking to share. Then the asking will stop… Self defense in such a situation is problematic. If you have an AK47 and a thousand rounds of ammo you stand a chance. If it’s only a machete, well… it’s difficult to kill people under those circumstances and bear in mind that they will be a lot more desperate than you. When normality is restored you and they are going to have to justify what has happened.
This is a document designed to generate both discussion and a practical list of needed items and recommended actions. It will form part of the Zero State recommendations for members, some of whom have already experienced this kind of situation in various parts of the world. Other more specialized groups are involved in creating plans for emergency communications networks including ham radio and local computer mesh networks to bridge gaps in Internet coverage.
Further input is needed, so if you have any suggestions please contribute.
Finally, a Carrington size mass ejection from the Sun occurred between July 22 and July 23 2012 and crossed the Earth’s orbit. We missed it by nine days. Current estimates are that there is a 12% chance of being hit by such an event, per decade. Estimated costs to the global economy is in the $trillions, with a recovery time of between 4 and 10 years.