GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - The one thing that sustains all life on earth is the very same thing that can bring all of our modern advancements and comforts to a screeching halt.
Millions of miles away, the sun literally is exploding with energy as it beams heat and light in all directions at all times. Sometimes, during especially active periods, it emits CMEs -- short for coronal mass ejections.
Dr. Todd Ellis with Western Michigan University explains that these CMEs are explosions from the sun "of high energy particles" that can be compared (on a much larger scale) to similar effects of a thermonuclear weapon.
Often, when a CME is released, the impacts are fairly innocuous and often beautiful -- resulting in the formation of aurora or what we refer to as Northern Lights.
But in extreme cases, the effects can be much greater.
Ellis explains: "They can completely disrupt radio communications ... build up charges on ... metals and create electric discharges like sparks and arching.
"They can even interact with Earth's magnetic field in which case ... creating what we call induced currents in the ground; the actual materials in the crust that are able to generate a magnetic field themselves and become magnetized and all of the sudden start to impact things from beneath our feet."
If those particles reach the ground and impact any area with electricity, the transformers and power stations are instantly overwhelmed and rendered useless.
This would not be isolated to a small radius; the impacts would simultaneously hit entire states. In turn, the electric grid would be completely overrun with loss of power to millions.
With this extreme vulnerability in mind, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, has introduced legislation to help us prepare for the worst. With estimates provided by Lloyd's of London on the order of "a 2.6-trillion-dollar impact on the economy," according to Peters.
He explains that the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act aims to "bring different agencies together to put together a comprehensive plan to better forecast space weather events."
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