The sun’s disruptive power on the agriculture food network — and so much more
The sun has the power to give us what we need, but it’s also powerful enough to disrupt our way of life here on earth.
PINE RIVER, Minn. — Kathy Draeger enjoys the fact that on a cold winter day she can stop by Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery in Clinton, Minnesota, and find ripe apples from New Zealand to purchase and enjoy.
It's a more than 8,000 mile journey. And it’s a purchase she can make because of an efficient transportation system and technology advancements that let even rural grocery stores in Clinton (population of about 400) quickly determine their needs and let distributors know.
“In that sense we have a very efficient food system,” Draeger said. “But if there is any disruption to that, what is our Plan B to that?”
That’s a question Draeger is pondering on sabbatical from her job as statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.
Certainly, our supply chain felt disrupted following the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. It continues to see disruption from the war in Ukraine and weather related disasters are all too common. But Draeger is considering another possibility — a second Carrington event.
What is the Carrington Event?
In 1859, the Northern Lights lit up the night sky for much of the U.S. and could be seen as far south as Panama in Central America, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An influx in electromagnetic waves caused telegraphs to malfunction, sending errant messages across the waves that kept users from being able to communicate.
On Sept. 1, 1859, Richard C. Carrington was studying a group of sunspots through dark filters that protected his eyes. Around 11 a.m., he saw a sudden flash of intense white light from the area of the sunspots. Some 17 hours later, the Aurora Borealis was so bright across North America, it was said that people could read newspapers by its light.
The Carrington Event was a once-every-500-years solar storm capable of disrupting satellites, telephone, radio, TV, internet and causing electrical grid blackouts — if any of those things would have existed back then. Because it was 1859, the telegraph and people’s fears were the most notable among things that suffered during the electrical storm.
Draeger can’t help but wonder what this event could do if it happened today. From her studies, she believes it could take months or years to repair our electrical grids — an amount of time that most members of the public are not prepared for. She believes it could cause worldwide food disruption.
The Carrington Event is not becoming more likely because of changing climates, but both problems can create the same sort of disruptions. A destroyed electrical grid can end communications among people and eliminate the movement of food and preservation. An intense solar storm can disrupt GPS, keeping a farmer from planting, or at least planting as straight as they’d like.
Think about closed gas stations, grounded airplanes, loss of refrigeration. The electric pump that sends drinking water into your home would go quiet. A changing climate can end food production in specific regions, through flooding, drought, and more severe weather events. Different problems, but both affecting consumers' ability to get food on the table.
FEMA reminds people to keep food on hand in case of emergency and find alternative power sources . Ready.gov , a United States government website devoted to helping you prepare for disaster, encourages everyone to make a plan.
“Take an inventory of the items you need that rely on electricity,” the Ready.gov website reads. “Plan for batteries and other alternative power sources to meet your needs when the power goes out, such as a portable charger or power bank. Have flashlights for every household member. Determine whether your home phone will work in a power outage and how long battery backup will last.”
But a tree knocking out power for half a day is a bit different from all power going out for weeks or months. The Carrington Event or a severe change in your food supply means finding something else you can rely on.
In her work with the University of Minnesota, Draeger gets to work on solutions for sustainability in a changing landscape. Following the pandemic, she worked to create a toolkit that could be followed to get produce straight from farmers to grocery stores in the wake of a disrupted distribution system. As a farmer in Big Stone County, Minnesota, she knows the value of her farm's contribution to the area and has seen the slow depopulation of small farm populations to the point where about 1% of the population is feeding the other 99%.
“To go from 1% (farmers) back to 50%, that would take a lot of effort and I think that I have been saying that, we lose farmers, we lose their skill set, we lose their knowledge, we lose their abilities — at our peril,” Draeger said.
Every generation of farmers lost is one less group that can share that knowledge.
“I feel like we put ourselves in peril by not holding the knowledge and skills of farmers in higher esteem and working to make sure we have a sufficient number of people on the landscape. It’s just a good Plan B,” Draeger said.
Draeger offered some ideas about how people could respond to severe disruptions in agriculture. One idea was by learning skills like those taught at the Back To Basics workshop in Pine River , Minnesota. The classes teach people about being more self-sufficient, like how to can food, work with bees, seed save, blacksmith, and do things that may be very valuable should our food systems see disruption. In other words, befriend a farmer.
“Having a diversity of sources is more protective and more resilient,” Draeger said. More types of production in your area could mean more access to a balanced diet.
One person in the February session said she knows someone who has stored up food to last 25 years. Others talked about keeping heirloom seeds on hand in case they lose access to seed purchase or creating a root cellar.
Draeger likened it to the “saving remnant,” the group of survivors referenced in the Bible that offer hope for the future. While the discussion dipped into end-of-the-world scenarios, Draeger said she does not not believe the end is near. She has hope.
“I mean I think we have some time to like really start taking this seriously, and figure out how we build that local, regional capacity to build your community,” Draeger said. “Like you said, build your local food supply chain so that you are supporting your local farmer.”
What are the chances?
Solar storms half as intense as the Carrington event happen about every 50 years, according to NOAA. Draeger believes there’s a chance we would see a Carrington-type event more often. She referenced NASA as saying that there was a 12% chance of these events happening in the next decade. Not a high percentage, but it’s worth taking steps to prepare.
According to information provided by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, “activity on the sun is steadily increasing as we move deeper into Solar Cycle 25. In addition to more sunspots on the sun, energetic events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections have become more frequent in the past year. Solar Cycle 25 began in December 2019 and it is predicted to reach solar maximum — the period when the sun is most active — in mid 2025.”
A solar cycle runs 11 years. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center issues real-time warnings and alerts to help people mitigate impacts from space weather. They use some safety nets including the GOES satellites, which monitor the sun for solar storms and can warn us of incoming danger. But Draeger said if it’s 17-36 hours of warning, it might not be enough time to prevent widespread damage. And at this point, it’s not even clear how our systems would handle a storm of the Carrington-level.
Her research dives into what groups are doing to prepare. She said one government arm includes the Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) subcommittee organized under the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Homeland and National Security, which is organized under the Office of Science and Technology Policy. That confusing conglomeration of groups is basically planning for these “what-if'' scenarios in order to provide a framework for national preparedness.
Some workshop attendees thought about what would happen and felt that it would likely be widespread chaos to lose power and eventually access to needs for weeks or months. Draeger likes to think that it’s not all doom in gloom. She does not believe these grid-failing situations have to be scary. Those who work together to provide needs locally will build resiliency, she said.
A goal of this sabbatical and these studies into a Carrington Event are to write what Draeger is calling an “agro-eco thriller.” So while she hopes the solar event won't happen, she wants to illustrate what it might look like if it did. The fiction novel will be a first for her as she primarily writes fact sheets, studies and grant proposals in her work.
“I’d really like to write a thriller that puts agriculture in the middle of it so that people really could relate to and understand how critical it is that we support, respect, pay attention to agriculture,” Draeger said. “Because without it you’re going to have 99% of the population that’s at a loss — at best.”