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CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip

Massive Solar Storm Hits Earth in Historic Space Event. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired May 10, 2024 - 23:00   ET



SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: There's this quote that said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.

UNKNOWN: I decided I would create a business to empower people with autism and related disabilities through gainful employment in the car wash industry.

UNKNOWN: I launched a brand with the intention to really just diversify the wine industry.

UNKNOWN: Instead of looking at things glass half-empty, look at things glass half-full, what difference can you make in your community?

UNKNOWN: For every blanket that we sell, we'll donate a blanket to your local homeless shelter.

UNKNOWN: I've dedicated my life to searching for new medicines from nature to combat the worst drug-resistant infections.

UNKNOWN: We believe robotics will unlock many technologies for all humanity to live longer.

We've mapped more of the surface of Mars than we have our oceans. So, we have this ambitious goal over the next six years to map a million reefs.

UNKNOWN: You know, there's so many things that we can be creative as Native people by simply reimagining stuff that we already have.

UNKNOWN: That's mind blowing to know that if I can plant a seed in somebody unknowingly, but just doing my job, it will influence them to be a more productive citizen.

UNKNOWN: If we all come together and do a small part, we're going to make a huge impact.


BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: We like to restore a little faith in humanity. ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I love this. Honestly, I love this time of year. It's important to tell these kinds of stories, really, Bill.

WEIR: Absolutely.

PHILLIP: All right. Well, we've got much more ahead in the next hour of our special coverage. Next Saturday night, this "Champions for Change" will be airing. But for now, we are continuing our coverage of this major solar storm that continues right now.

LAURA COATES, CNN HOST AND SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It is a night to remember, a historic display that you'll probably be telling your friends about as you go into the weekend. In Michigan, we've got some new pictures just in showing this solar flare that you can see following in the dark. Over western Tennessee as well, blinding light, clasping colors. CNN just got pictures from Georgia as well, purple bursting in the night sky. Glimmers of gold as well outside of Atlanta.

Welcome to our two-hour special edition of "NewsNight." I'm Abby Phillip.

WEIR: And I'm Bill Weir. Thanks so much for joining us tonight. Those colors splashed across skies not used to seeing the northern lights. A perfect shade of dark blue, you know, sort of lighting up the sky in various places. But there could be resounding consequences to human infrastructure as a result of all of that energy crackling through the sky tonight.

In the Rockies, Saskatoon, Highway 1, every city, you can see every color across the sky. This one is rated a G5 out of 5, top of the scale. And right now, it is hitting across the East Coast.

PHILLIP: So, you probably have gotten this by now. You probably don't even remember the last time this happened. But it is extremely rare. It is a once-in-two-decade solar burst. It's aiming for (INAUDIBLE) but it might end up being a riptide at the end of the day. We'll find out as the weekend continues.

The country may soon have to say so long and goodnight to some of the things that we rely on every day, at least temporarily. Satellites, thousands of them that are up in the solar system, may go offline. Telecom companies, they say that they're prepared for some of the fallout from this and they can deploy repairs at the solar flare's notice.

But any breaks in the solar system would create a lot of panic, well, pretty much everywhere. So, we have been watching and working with our CNN affiliates all around the world to get this information to you.

So, let's start off with CNN's Chad Myers in the Weather Center with more on what this storm is exactly and what we can expect from this point forward. Chad, we have been seeing actually so many great images.


PHILLIP: What does it tell us about just how this thing is progressing?

MYERS: Well, I just got an email from someone in Scotland that said, I see these northern lights all the time, but I have never seen them to my south. And he turned the camera around, pointed the wrong way, didn't point toward the North Pole, but he showed me these pictures pointing to the south. So, yes, this is a major, major G5 storm. Started off with solar flares, and all of a sudden, we got a coronal mass ejection. What is that? Just a bunch of plasma that the sun threw at us.

And we're expecting a new arrival of a CME, another energetic part of this plasma storm that's coming into the Earth, probably somewhere around midnight Eastern time. So, if you're outside and you're not seeing what you thought you were going to see, just wait an hour because you just never know. This is going to be another big one to really energize the system again.


And so, this coronal mass ejection will certainly get us back to the pictures that we saw maybe like in Finland a few hours ago. It was amazing. Things have calmed down. But with the secondary blast now, all of a sudden, the U.S. is going to see it as well.

Think about this as a seismograph that you would see in California, where the earth isn't shaking at all, then all of a sudden, there's an earthquake, and then you see the thing, the needle goes back up and down. Well, this is the solar storm happening at about 12:45 this afternoon. And things have been shaking the entire time, and we're about to shake it some more.

Aurora is farther south. I just saw some pictures from College Station, Texas. There are some pictures there of the pink sky that they're seeing. Powder outages, though, these are probably the biggest problems that we could see. And then, of course, the satellite disruptions.

When so much solar wind comes into the atmosphere, it can actually like you trying to yell at the umpire when the rest of the crowd is cheering. He's not going to hear you because your voice isn't loud enough, like the voice of that satellite isn't loud enough. Where will you see it? Possibly almost down to the Gulf Coast. Now, where will you won't see it? Here, where the clouds are.

Good news, guys. This isn't a one-night event. This is not an eclipse event. This is going to go on for night after night after night.

WEIR: Chad, thank you, sir. Exciting stuff. Doing the weather on the sun for a change.


Let's go to CNN's Paula Newton in Dunrobin, Ontario now. She's just outside of Ottawa in Canada there. Paula, they're -- you're not familiar up there. Not exactly a novelty in Canada. But are they any brighter tonight? Is there any more excitement given the G5 status?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Listen, it is still always spectacular. And what Canadians heard was that because of the strength of this storm, and you just heard Chad go through it, the colors might be different, right? We're used to kind of that greeny color, the milky color, sometimes some blues. It's that purples, in some cases, the pink. They're really looking in different directions and in different areas to see if they can see that intense color.

I will say, though, that the cloud cover here in the eastern part of Canada where I am is kind of keeping things at bay. I'm glad that Chad said that perhaps by midnight, we will get a second shot at this. Hopefully, it'll give some time for the clouds to abate. But even though Canadians are used to it here, the magnitude of this storm, the sheer strength of it is really what is catching everyone off guard.

And I heard you guys talk last hour about 1989 in Quebec. Quebec is right over my shoulder across the river there. They had a huge blackout, just talking about things that can happen. Massive blackout in the entire province. Millions of people shut down. And again, it was because of this solar -- this kind of a solar ejection.

I guess the issue is now, we are told, that this is unlikely to happen going forward, no matter the strength of the storm. They've reinforced the grids, and things are done differently right now through the grid so that wouldn't happen.

But the other thing that I just find amazing is the fact that Chad is tracking this with satellites, that in 1989, when that big blackout happened, did not exist. So, we know so much more now about these kinds of solar storms in terms of what's happening, their magnitude, and when they're going to happen than we did back then.

So just extraordinary information, which means people aren't on their porch every minute of the evening, but certainly keeping an eye to the sky and waiting for those clouds to clear.

WEIR: I'm sure these folks at NOAA are learning even more as the night progresses over this big one. Paula, thank you so much.

PHILLIP: And this massive solar storm is generating breathtaking auroras that Americans are seeing from Maine to Florida. For more on this storm and some of the problems that this event could cause to our power grids, as we've been discussing, and communication system, here is Kristin Fisher.


KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The biggest solar storm in nearly two decades started with this massive burst of energy on Wednesday. It's called a coronal mass ejection, and those highly charged particles have been barreling towards Earth at 500 miles per second ever since. The first particles began striking Earth's magnetic field Friday afternoon, and forecasters expect it to intensify into the night and perhaps through the weekend.

HAKEEM OLUSEYL, ASTROPHYSICIST: Just think of gazillions of protons coming toward Earth at the same time. There are also electrons in there. There are also magnetic fields. And when they hit the Earth's magnetic field or any other planet's magnetic field, they interact with that field. And those changes generate currents which can damage power grids, satellites, anything that has an electrical conductor involved.

FISHER (voice-over): The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is describing this storm as an extraordinary and very rare event, one that also has them a little concerned.

The biggest threats are to satellites and to global power grids. NOAA says it notified critical infrastructure operators and that mitigation efforts have been taken.


But it's still warning of possible widespread voltage control problems.

OLUSEYL: The last time we had a big power outage due to a geomagnetic storm was in the 80s. Have we fixed things since then? We're going to find out.

FISHER (voice-over): Satellites will also be tested. Most can go into a safe mode during a solar storm. But just two years ago, SpaceX lost 40 of its Starlink Internet satellites during a geomagnetic storm that wasn't as strong as this one. And then there's the threat to people in space.

UNKNOWN: This is Jamestown (INAUDIBLE) astronauts. We got a solar storm coming in and it's a hot one.

FISHER (voice-over): Apple TV's "For All Mankind" envisioned astronauts on the moon running for cover to dodge the incoming radiation during a strong solar storm. In reality, it's the astronauts currently on board the International Space Station that may need to shelter in more protected portions of the orbiting outpost.

OLUSEYL: Space radiation is a known phenomenon that is dangerous to biology, whether it's during a geomagnetic storm or just the general tryst into outer space.

FISHER (voice-over): But despite the potential danger, a solar storm also rewards us with some of the most spectacular auroras, and this time over a wider area, extending as far south as Alabama.

OLUSEYL: The beauty of a nice coronal mass ejection is that we get to have an astronomical event basically come to us from space that's visible to the naked eye. We all just recently experienced this with the total solar eclipse that happened in April. So now seeing the northern lights, that is another extraordinary astronomical event.


PHILLIP: Kristin, thank you for that report. One thing that is very different about this super solar storm is that we now have these phones that actually are so detailed and powerful that they can actually capture the lights and the changes and the differentiation in the color. That wasn't there 20 years ago, the last time we saw something like this.

FISHER (on camera): Yeah. And you know, Abby, I was going to try to go out and take a picture with my phone. I'm so upset --


-- that here in D.C., it's cloudy and raining. It's going to be like that through the whole weekend. I'm so disappointed. But, apparently, your phone can take pictures and see things that the human eye can't see.


FISHER: So, go out, take a picture, especially if you use the long exposure setting on your phone crank up some of those saturation and the contrast. And apparently, you can capture some really great auroras that -- that the eye can't see.

PHILLIP: Well, Kristen --

FISHER: But a bummer for the folks here in D.C.

PHILLIP: Don't give up because it is also rainy and cloudy here in New York. And I've been getting photos from people --

FISHER: Really?

PHILLIP: -- nearby in New Jersey who are seeing purple skies. And so, go outside, check back with us, let us know --


-- if you're able to take a little peek at something. You might -- you might get a little bit lucky. Thanks, Kristin.

FISHER: Thanks.

WEIR: Not to be confused with folks in New Jersey who see purple skies on a Wednesday.

PHILLIP: (INAUDIBLE) for different reason (ph).


WEIR: We have pictures here. Is this Grand Forks? Yes. North Dakota. You can see the green and pink illuminating the sky right there. This is an exciting night for astrophysicists around the world, I'm guessing, including our next guest, Janna Levin from Columbia University, also author of the "Black Hole Survival Guide." Thanks for being with us.

JANNA LEVIN, ASTROPHYSICIST: Thank you for having me.

WEIR: What do you make of tonight's events?

Well, it is rare and it's -- it's such a dramatic event. But I want to remind people that we are also electromagnetic.


We're talking a lot about technology. We have thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit and some that are really quite far away. But we are also electromagnetic. We conduct electricity. That's why you don't want to dry your hair in the bath.

And so, this is dangerous to us, which is why it's dangerous to the astronauts in the International Space Station. But they're not that far out. They're 250 miles up above the Earth's surface. So, they're within the protection of the Earth's magnetic field, as are we.

And that literally acts like a shield. And it keeps the charged particles in these spiraled orbits where we're seeing the aurora borealis coming from and these northern lights stretching all the way down south here. But it doesn't let it cut all the way through.

WEIR: Right.

LEVIN: So, we're somewhat protected.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, that's -- that's reassuring.

LEVIN: Yeah.

PHILLIP: A little bit.

LEVIN: Yeah.


PHILLIP: I want to ask you about black holes. That's for another day.

LEVIN: Well, our sun will not become a black hole, mercifully.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, we've been talking about the time horizon here for this stuff. And the sun is burning at these incredible levels and has been doing this for so long. And yet these flares get to Earth actually surprisingly quickly.

LEVIN: Yeah.

PHILLIP: Tell us about kind of why it's going to be a whole weekend, for example, that we might be seeing the light show, we might be experiencing this phenomenon.


LEVIN: So, the sun is burning millions of essentially nuclear bombs every second. And it's been doing that, as you said, on the show for four and a half billion years. So, it's an incredibly powerful system. And it takes a while for some of that energy to make it out to the surface of the sun. It could take a hundred thousand years, really, for some of it to spread out. But we're getting the mass ejections from the outermost atmosphere. And these plumes are incredibly powerful right now because the sun has this magnetic cycle. It's at a peak.

And these magnetic fields, they form almost like -- like rains or arches on the surface of the sun. They're like they're rooted in the sunspots. The sunspots are like these anchors. And when they're ejected, they're at incredibly high speeds. It takes light, eight minutes, to get to us from the sun.

WEIR: Ninety-three million miles, right?

LEVIN: Yeah, exactly. So, in eight minutes, the, you know, speed of light is really fast.


But we're still seeing the sun as it was eight minutes ago. But some of these mass ejections are trillions of kilograms. I mean, they're -- they're slower.

WEIR: And they're slower.

LEVIN: They're taking longer, but still hours, maybe tens of hours.

WEIR: The analogy I read, I really liked, was from a great piece, in "The New Yorker," has great background on this. But if solar flares are like a muzzle flash from a gun --

UNKNOWN: Uh-hmm.

WEIR: -- the coronal mass ejection is like a cannonball coming out.

LEVIN: Right. Yeah.

WEIR: And it's pushing all these electrons and protons through the galaxy. You know, sort of drafting. So, all that energy following --

UNKNOWN: Uh-hmm.

WEIR: -- the cannonball is what hits with the storm.


WEIR: Correct?


UNKNOWN: And -- WEIR: Is there -- what does science need to get more precise about predicting these things or is it just so hard?

LEVIN: It might not ever get that precise. It's -- it's -- it's a messy system. If you look at our own magnetic field, this wonderful shield that we have, it's very compressed on the daylight side where the sun is bombarding it all the time with solar winds. That's all the time. And that magnetic influence stretches all the way past Pluto. And those solar winds are going really fast.

These mass ejections, like you said, they're -- they're slower. They're barreling at us. They're -- they're -- they're lobbing incredibly energetic plasmas at us on that compressed side. And it may be that these are just very chaotic, irregular systems that -- that don't yield to precise predictions. There's a lot of chaotic systems in the solar system. That's why we can't perfectly --


LEVIN: -- predict things coming out of asteroid clouds or comets.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, as an astrophysicist and somebody who studies and loves the universe, what are you learning as you're just experiencing this and experiencing this as a G5? It's not super common, not entirely unheard of, but not super common.

LEVIN: Well, it is amazing that we've gotten better at predicting it. Even the idea that we have this roughly 11-year solar cycle isn't something we understood a few decades ago. We were sending astronauts to the moon without protection. I mean, you know --


-- they were walking around in the moon. And just like that clip you showed, yeah, they're not running --


LEVIN: -- for cover because there was a G5 event. We didn't know how to predict that. So, I really see that one of the things that's very interesting to me, I often joke, I'm mostly interested in things that happened more than a billion years ago.


Like this is really like local news for me. Like, oh, the solar system. You know, things are billions of light years away. But what it tells me about things like that is that there are other solar systems. There are possibly more stars in our Milky Way galaxy that have planets than don't or multiple planets around each of them.

So, there are these star systems where we're talking about the possibility of the emergence of life. And one of the things that we suspect might be needed for the emergence of life is a protective magnetic field from the radiation of their own stars. So --

PHILLIP: If we didn't have it, we wouldn't be sitting here.

LEVIN: No, we wouldn't. Which is why, for me, this is big news, because it is talking about the fact that maybe there are more planets in the universe and there are stars and that there's life out there.

WEIR: Maybe there's a news crew interviewing astrophysicists --

LEVIN: That's right, looking at us.

WEIR: Looking at us.

LEVIN: And in like 100,000 years, they'll realize there was a G5 storm.



PHILLIP: That's a little too deep even for me.

WEIR: Janna Levin. Read the "Black Hole Survival Guide" if this piques your interest. Thank you so much for coming in tonight.

LEVIN: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

WEIR: Another blast of plasma expected within the hour. We've got much more ahead as we follow the latest develops in this massive solar storm, including a photographer who captured that incredible image. He'll join us live with more of what he has seen next, and an astronaut who was on the International Space Station while a similar severe solar storm happened.




WEIR: We are getting new images just in out of the northern lights in Portland, Maine tonight. Take a look at those vibrant colors. Incredibly picturesque scene next to a lighthouse there, it looks like, taken by photographer Benjamin Williamson, who joins us now via the phone. Hello, Benjamin. Can you hear us?

BENJAMIN WILLIAMSON, PHOTOGRAPHER (via telephone): I can hear you. Good evening.

WEIR: Thanks. Thanks for taking some time to talk to us. Tell me about this photograph and what it's like. Do you see the aurora borealis normally up in Maine, and how does this one compare?

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): We don't see it that often. I've seen it a few times on the horizon. You know, a pink or a green glow kind of in the distance, but nothing like we've had tonight and continuing.

[23:25:03] I'm still outside. It is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen.


The awe and wonder. It's amazing.

PHILLIP: Yeah. It almost doesn't even look real. These -- it just looks like something AI-generated.

WEIR: No filters, hopefully.

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): No.

PHILLIP: But you are a photographer. Did you have to do anything different to capture the range of colors, the kind of array of the aurora in these photos?

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): I'm almost embarrassed to say that those are photos of the back of my camera, and I haven't done any editing or --

PHILLIP: Oh, wow.

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): -- anything to the images because I haven't had time to sit down at the computer. But it is true that when you take a long exposure, you pull out a little bit more color than the human eye can see in person. But I've seen those colors very clearly myself with my own eyes this evening. But it might be a little more vibrant in the images you're seeing on the screen.

WEIR: Yeah, it looks like you're under one of Maine's iconic lighthouses there. Is that in Portland?

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): Yes, sir. We're at Portland Headlight in Cape Elizabeth, which is a world-famous lighthouse just south of Portland.

WEIR: And is it -- are you a solo stargazer tonight or is the community out celebrating this, enjoying this? It's just the excitement in your voice makes me hope there are people there to share it with you.

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): There was one other person out here, which was very surprising to me. I think a lot of people here went north, thinking that they would have to travel some distance to see this when really, you know, my sister in Louisiana said she's seeing it down there.


And it's overhead here. I didn't have to travel far.

PHILLIP: Yeah. How does this compare for you to -- I mean, I don't know what you normally photograph in your work, but when you get a chance to capture this pretty rare occurrence, how does that compare as an experience?

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): You know, the first comparison that comes to mind is the solar eclipse, which I just got to witness over Maine's Great Mountain, Katahdin, you know, not long ago, last month. That was amazing and absolutely incredible. But this is better right there with it. My whole photography practice really is centered around awe and wonder. So, I photograph a lot of extreme weather, winter storms here, and the beauty of nature along with the beauty of the coast of Maine.

WEIR: So, for the photography, the photo bugs out there, what -- what kind of setup do you have? Are you spending the night out there to try to capture this with time lapses or anything? What are you doing?

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): I've got a mirrorless camera, a Sony mirrorless that does a really good job in low light. I'm not doing any time lapse, though I wish I was. I'm mostly focused on gathering still images. I've got a really brisk business selling prints in the area. I know that these will do really well as prints.


And I also lead photography workshops. So, this will be great promotional material. Not promising to anyone else we'll see an aurora like this, but maybe bringing some attention to my business.


WEIR: Absolutely.

PHILLIP: Well, you couldn't be in a better state to do this.


You couldn't be really a better person, someone who's out there looking for the wonder in nature. Benjamin, thanks for being with us tonight. Really interesting. And I can't wait to see the actual --

WEIR: Photo.

PHILLIP: If this is a photo of the back of your camera --

WEIR: Yes.

PHILLIP: -- I cannot wait to see what the actual images end up looking like. I guess I'll have to come up to Maine and purchase them from you.

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): They'll be on my website. And I'm so happy to hear you say that because I can't wait either.


PHILLIP: Yeah, it's going to be fantastic. Thanks for being with us.

WEIR: Congratulations, Benjamin, being --

WILLIAMSON (via telephone): Thanks for having me.

WEIR: -- at the right time. You bet. Thanks for sharing your wonder with us. Gazillions, gazillions and gazillions of protons coming at Earth right now. The effects, of course, dazzling lights, but also potential problems with the electrical grid. And we're going to speak to an expert about that concern right after this.



PHILLIP: We are closely monitoring this solar storm and whether it will have an impact on the power grid. Utility companies across America are also monitoring this storm. A utility company in Detroit says that it's pausing non-essential maintenance and testing activities. So far, the good news is no issues, Bill.

Right now, we've just been having these great images that you're seeing there on your screen all night long, coming from all across the country, even as far as southern Florida. This one is from Grand Forks, North Dakota.

But with us now is Dr. Paul Moses. He's a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the head of the electrical focus Moses Lab. Dr. Moses, thanks for being here. Any signs that you're picking up from your networks about any issues, large or small, with the power grid? This has seemed to be based on just the light show that we're seeing a very wide ranging, very powerful solar storm.


PAUL MOSES, PROFESSOR AT UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA, DIRECTOR OF LABORATORY FOR ELECTRICAL ENERGY AND POWER SYSTEMS: Right. Thank you for having me, first of all. And yeah, I've been monitoring the situation like everyone else. I haven't heard of any reports of any equipment damage or outages so far. So --

WEIR: Thank goodness. Knock wood that that holds. University of Oklahoma, a great electrical engineering school there as well. So, you're equipped to tell us how far have we come as a country to prepare for these sorts of things. How much can you solar windproof a transformer, for example?

MOSES: Okay, there has been a lot that we've learned over the last several decades, especially since 1989, when that major storm happened, knocked out the Quebec power grid.

The main thing, I think, is we have more measurement and instrumentation out there, more situational awareness so that we can see a problem developing, so this -- this deployment of extra sensors and measurement equipment. And also, the North American Reliability Commission have mandated all utilities to have action plans ready for such an event. So, I think we're well prepared.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, what do you think is left to be done? I mean, you study this very closely. Do you see vulnerabilities out there that are not yet addressed?

MOSES: Yeah, one area that I'm focusing on, which is the role of renewable energy, this -- the power grid has changed quite fundamentally over the past 20, 30 years of more solar, more wind. So, it's an it's an unknown how this disturbance will interact with these new resources coming online. So, that's why I've got some funding from the National Science Foundation to study that very problem.

WEIR: Yeah. A lot of folks, though, may not realize that Texas is the greenest state in the union because of the prices of solar and wind. Now, Texas, which has its own grid, essentially leads the nation in those sources of energy.

And if I understand it right, Dr. Moses, most of our grid, which is this big Rube Goldberg machine from coast to coast with thousands of different inputs and connection lines, is running on alternating current AC, but the sun is shooting direct current DC at us, and that's what causes the problem. Does that manifest itself in like blown transformers? What does it look like? Would you notice it?

MOSES: Yes, that's -- you know, I think you described it well. So, the power system operates an alternating current like a sine wave, very fast, and the current that's induced actually in the ground by this magnetic field variation is more like a DC direct current. So, when you mix the AC and the DC in a power system that's designed for AC alternating current, you get some strange effects.

Transformers, for example, were only designed to operate on alternating current. Now, you have AC plus DC, and that causes transformers to operate in a higher temperature and more under thermal stress. They may not last as long if that current gets very high.

PHILLIP: And are you finding that with what you're studying with renewables and its increased usage in the sort of how we power this Earth, that the people who are in charge of passing laws and allocating funds are taking these risks seriously? It strikes me that a G5 event like this one is probably a pretty good wake-up call that these things can get pretty powerful.

MOSES: That's right. I would say one of the regulators, the North American Electric Reliability Commission, they have -- I've been talking with them and they have -- definitely, this is on their radar, the role of renewable energy, this new system that's going to be increasingly more prevalent in the future, how that's going to interact with this new -- with this disturbance.

Definitely, we've been doing a lot of modelling and simulation to try and predict where the vulnerabilities are. So, I'd say we are still in the early stages of that study, and there's a lot more to explore.


WEIR: A couple of years ago, FEMA looked at all the threats out there to society and said only two could shut down the country en masse, a pandemic or a solar storm like this one. We've already seen the pandemic. We'd rather not do the second one these days. So, we hope that that the worst possibilities aren't happening.

Dr. Paul Moses, thank you for your insight tonight. We appreciate it.

MOSES: Thank you.

WEIR: All right. Multiple agencies across the country monitoring the extreme solar storm tonight. We will tell you who else is concerned and why after this.



PHILLIP: We're back with our coverage of the extreme solar storm all across really planet Earth. I want to bring in now Craig Fugate. He's the former FEMA administrator and former member of the NOAA Space Weather Advisory Group. Also, with us, Dr. Jennifer Meehan, assistant director for space policy at the White House. Dr. Meehan and Craig Fugate, thank you both for being here with us. Dr. Meehan, I want to start with you.


What are the steps that the government has taken to get us to the point where as of right now, it has been a couple of hours, and we're not really hearing a lot of reports that anything catastrophic has happened?

JENNIFER MEEHAN, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR SPACE POLICY, WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY POLICY: Yeah, so, great question. So, over the past decade, we -- the federal government has realized that this is a huge problem on a global scale. And so, they've really taken the steps to ensure that our nation can build resilience and mitigation towards the effects of space weather.

And so, in the Obama-Biden administration, there was a space weather subcommittee developed in the White House, which got together over 30 different departments, agencies, and offices to come up with some strategies, space weather strategy and action plan, that the government can take to ensure that our -- that our nation would be prepared.

And also, Congress took note and said, okay, well, the federal government is doing the role, but we need to have an advisory group. And so, they passed the (INAUDIBLE) that have legislation in 2020, which developed the space solar advisory group that we have the pleasure of having Craig to get on to give the academics and give the private industry and give the non-government end users the advisory role to kind of help guide us on what we need to do to protect our nation from space weather.

WEIR: Craig, I was reading an account of early in your days there at FEMA. Like most of the folks tonight, people within the emergency management community weren't even sure what a G5 solar storm was at the time. I imagine so many people have come so far from there. But do you agree with those scientists who worry that there's a 12% chance that a big storm like this could hit Earth in the next decade?

CRAIG FUGATE, FORMER ADMINISTRATOR, FEMA: Yeah, it's the -- it's what we don't know. We have some historical events like the Carrington Event back in the 1850s that if you look at it today and our dependence upon technologies, we're not sure that we have done what could be, you know, in many cases, the steps to mitigate or, as was pointed out earlier, we're changing our system so fast, bringing on renewable energy and having to manage very complex grid operations over long distances. We don't know if these are increasing our vulnerabilities or making them less.

So, for the emergency management community, it's that unknown. I think that's part of the work we've been doing, Space Weather Advisory Group, is making sure that we are able to inform Congress. These are the questions we still need to answer to make sure we can build resilient infrastructure against these extreme storms.

PHILLIP: I mean, Dr. Meehan, I wonder what your take is on that. I mean, we've been talking a little bit more recently about those renewables and the way that it's changing on the ground so rapidly. It's also in the United States a fairly decentralized system in terms of how our energy is managed and distributed across the country. So, where do you think we stand given that, so far, it seems that there are not any catastrophic reports? Is it so far, so good?

MEEHAN: Right. So, that's the thing about space weather, right? If you don't hear anything, it means we did our job, we took our mitigating procedures, we protected ourselves. Right? So, you know, it's unlike a hurricane. We could see it coming. It's coming regardless of what you do. Right?

And so, with space weather, we can take those mitigation steps that we've been working really hard on. So, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, also known as FERC, back in 2012, actually said, hey, you know, grid owners and operators, look at your vulnerabilities, do your assessments, and come up with ways that you can mitigate the effects of space weather storms. And so, you're seeing that happening.

As soon as we hit that G5 today, we called that FERC hotline, we alerted the grid operators, and they started taking the actions needed. They are seeing effects in their systems. But because we have those mitigation techniques, we are able to kind of alleviate those right now. Right? So, we don't know what's coming through the weekend. We keep seeing CME after CME, as you've heard.

And so right now, all is okay, even though we are seeing effects, but it's because we have been taking those steps for mitigation over the past decade that we're really, you know, building that resilience that we're seeing now.

WEIR: Yeah. Craig, the -- I wonder if -- I'm sort of -- is there somebody at every utility who has to think about this problem now? Is it -- is it that sort of well-known, the threat of these things, that wherever you happen to be in the country, somebody tonight is monitoring things and trying to keep things from going dark? FUGATE: Yes, across industry sectors, actually. So, it's not just -- it's not just electric utilities. But this is really a watershed moment. You know, we go back to 2009 when I walked into FEMA. I said, what's our plan for space weather? They said, what space weather? And tonight, the federal agencies, including FEMA, are monitoring this event. And in FEMA's case, they're looking, are there any impacts to infrastructure, any disruptions that potentially would require some response?


But in 2009, the federal government didn't even have a coherent plan across all the agencies. That's one of the things that President Obama directed. That's something that has been carried through in the next administration. That has resulted, I think, in not only the federal government having a unified plan, but a lot of these organizations that could be impacted by space weather.

The awareness is much higher. There is more frequent communication between the Space Weather Prediction Center, which is the National Hurricane Center for Space Weather Events. And that I -- my hope is that what we're seeing is those mitigation effects are working and we're at a level we haven't been before.

And again, this is a G5. It's a very significant event. But every G5 is going to be a little different. And as Jen said, we're going to see, as this goes through the weekend, how systems are performing. And more importantly, are we seeing and learning anything that we could do differently next time?

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, to that point, every G5 -- I'm sort of astounded as we've been talking to all these experts. You know, a G5 could be, you know, like a tidal wave or it could be a tsunami. It could be either of those things, which is a huge, huge range.

I wonder, Dr. Meehan, when you at the federal level are looking at building resiliency, I mean, what did it look like? Did you go back to that major event in the 1980s that kind of shut parts of the Canadian grid down for a bit? And you just studied that like a hawk. I mean, was that sort of the point of reference? Did you go all the way back to the Carrington effect? I mean, how much are you studying these past events?

MEEHAN: That is such a great question. And we call these benchmark events, right? And so, we took as many benchmark events that we have seen in modern history that we have record of, and we did studies and saying, well, how big is big?

And so, we did this a few years ago. We're actually going through a process now to revisit those benchmarks to say, okay, well, we've seen the Carrington, we've seen the Halloween storm, we've seen the Hydro Quebec storm of the late 80s taking out part of the grid, but really, is that as big and powerful as it gets or are we missing something?

And so, the best way to do it is to take what we've seen before and then just maybe take it a little bit higher to say, okay, well, we could build our systems, withstand these impacts, but what about a little more resilience, just in case that we haven't truly experienced the biggest storms the sun has unleashed on us yet?

WEIR: Yeah. Well, I cover the climate and energy beat. So, this is a rare chance to point out the fact that there is more renewable energy waiting online to get on the grid that is already on the grid that exists right now. So, the national grid needs help in a lot of different ways, resiliency, electrification as we decarbonize in the wake of the climate crisis. But at least we're paying attention to our role in the universe on nights like this and thinking about these connections a little bit more.

Craig Fugate, Dr. Jenny Meehan, thank you both so much. We appreciate it.

Let's bring in Chad Myers in the Space Weather Center tonight in Atlanta. What can we expect in the next couple hours, Chad?

MYERS: Well, we're waiting for the arrival of the very next CME. We know it's not that far away. It's probably an hour plus or minus 30 minutes. So, if you're outside like my friend is in Denver not seeing anything, just wait a minute because things are going to start to ramp up here. All the red, you're going to see it, except if you're under these clouds. The clouds are a problem today.

But this is not an eclipse. This will happen for the next probably three nights in a row. So, if you miss it today, that's okay because we've had more than one, what we call coronal mass ejections. This big plasma that has been thrown at the Earth. And we have more than one.

This right here in the middle, that's the sun. Even though it's blocked out by the satellite here and by the picture here, you would notice the sun under there if I took it off, but then everything else would be completely blown out, you wouldn't be able to see anything. But you see these waves, kind of little smoky waves coming out. That's how we know that these ejections are coming toward Earth in the first place.

Now, if you think about it, the sun, the big round ball, the Earth way out here, think about how many other directions these coronal mass ejections go every single day, usually, especially in a solar maximum, and we don't even notice them. But we're only caring about this one because it's headed right toward us. This is the big event for us. And I think probably somewhere plus or minus 12:30 is when we'll start to see that.

If you want to go to, you can go to, great website, look for a little thing in the left, top left, and it says "DSCOVR." It's D-S-C-O-V-R, acronym, you know. If you take a look at that, you click on that. You can actually see the top line up here. This is what I've been showing you all day. When these two lines start to go crazy, that's a 30-minute warning because this satellite here is one million miles away, and the solar wind is going 1.6 million miles per hour. Wrap your head around that.

PHILLIP: Are you asking us to do some math here, Chad? MYERS: No, no, no. There's no math.



This is not the new math. But we have -- that's -- that's going to be your 30-minute window. When these things start to go crazy again, like they did here, see, this was all day long, until 12:30, nothing happened, then all of a sudden, boy, the atmosphere shook and it's still shaking right now. But it's going to shake again as soon as that next CME. That's going to arrive any time now, really. When that comes, get outside, get ready, put your coat on if you to.


MYERS: That's a 30-minute warning.

PHILLIP: All right, guys, you got your 30-minute warning from Chad Myers and from us.

WEIR: Yeah.

PHILLIP: Soon. Chad, thank you very much.

MYERS: You bet. Good night.

PHILLIP: And for you at home, go outside, go see something. You might -- you might be surprised, what you can see in most of the country right now.

WEIR: Wake up the kids.

PHILLIP: We have been seeing so many incredible images coming from those of you at home. Thank you so much for watching this special edition of "NewsNight" and for monitoring this extreme solar storm with us. I'm Abby Phillip.

WEIR: And I'm Bill Weir. CNN's coverage of the extreme solar storm continues right after this.