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When It Comes to Solar Storms, We Don’t Even Know How Bad It Might Get


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CME, solar storm, space weather, electricity

A coronal mass ejection. Credit: NASA/SDO

Space weather is not all bad. After all, the charged particles streaming out from the sun that cause geomagnetic disturbances on and around our planet also produce the lovely aurorae near Earth’s poles—and sometimes at much lower latitudes.

But when the sun really acts up, spewing out heaps of charged particles in a burst called a coronal mass ejection, space weather can get a bit more menacing—and future storms could be even worse than the ones we’ve experienced. Solar storms can damage power grids, fry communications satellites and disrupt aircraft electronics. A few oft-cited historical examples: a 1989 solar storm caused billions of dollars in damages in Quebec and triggered a blackout affecting millions. An even bigger storm in 1859 rocked telegraph systems in the U.S. and abroad; the induced currents coursing through the wires were so strong that they ignited fires in telegraph offices. If something like that happened in today’s vastly more wired world, country-size regions could lose power for months, according to a recent U.K. assessment; the damages could run into the trillions of dollars.

But what if the superstorm of 1859 isn’t even as bad as it gets? The problem is not just that our technological world is vulnerable to stormy space weather, which it is, but also that we don’t really know what kind of storms to expect, according to a commentary in the April 19 issue of Nature by Mike Hapgood of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

“In the long term, we still have little sense of what maximum space weather event we should prepare for,” Hapgood notes. He adds that many power grids are now built so that their transformers can withstand an event the size of the 1989 Quebec storm. But sooner or later that level of preparedness will be insufficient: “Last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan show the dangers of preparing only for an event similar to that seen in recent decades.” We already know that bigger storms happen on relatively short timescales—both the 1859 storm and a 1921 event were much more powerful than the 1989 flare-up.

Hapgood is certainly not the first to sound the alarm about the threat of solar superstorms. But his recommendations for how we could start grappling with the problem are surprisingly attainable, if a tad unsexy. Yes, utility operators must beef up power grids with more robust transformers and devices that block storm-induced currents, and space weather forecasters must find ways to better predict the timing and severity of incoming coronal mass ejections. But if we really want to learn what the worst-case scenario looks like, we could start small, by digitizing reams of data on past events. “Most historical data sets exist only on paper as charts or tables, sometimes handwritten,” Hapgood notes. “These include ionospheric data going back 80 years and magnetic data going back 170 years.” Bringing those records into the digital realm, where more people could access them, would boost researchers’ understanding of what kinds of storms occur how often. Another approach: improving the physical models that simulate how the swirling plasma in a coronal mass ejection propagates through space, and how it affects Earth when it hits. “In this way,” Hapgood writes, “extreme events can be simulated before they happen.”

No matter how well we understand space weather—and at the moment we don’t understand it very well—solar storms will always be a fact of life. In fact, Hapgood views them as “a generic environmental risk to society and the economy, in parallel with earthquakes, volcanoes and floods.” Let’s just hope we won’t have to weather the solar-storm equivalent of a 100-year flood before society gets serious about preparing for the worst.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. gbcjjj 6:05 pm 04/18/2012

    A Dummie question: in a house cutting the electric power before the storm come to earth, what are the dangers?

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  2. 2. RCWhitmyer 6:56 pm 04/18/2012

    The damage is done to transformers, switches, and generators in the power grid. The long power lines pickup energy from fluctuations of earths magnetic field, (longer the line the more energy it picks up), not unlike a generators coils moving past a magnet as it spins. It would take a really off the scale solar storm to damage a typical home.

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  3. 3. RobertFritzius 10:09 pm 04/18/2012

    If it is not already being done, long haul power lines can be constructed in a manner that is equivalent to the old fashioned “twisted pair” circuitry where vacuum tube filaments were fed with AC power. In the old equipments the filament lead twisting minimized AC coupling into sensitive circuits. With power lines the “twisting” could be used to largely cancel out the effects of impulsive solar events that affect large areas.

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  4. 4. Asteroid Miner 3:20 pm 04/19/2012

    Please remember that solar storms are not the source of NEMP [Nuclear [bomb] ElectroMagnetic Pulse]. EMP does not come from solar flares. EMP comes from nuclear bomb explosions at “high altitude,” which means a few miles to low Earth orbit. EMP= Electromagnetic Pulse. It is the EME [Electromagnetic Effect] of nuclear war. I worked in the EME lab of Harry Diamond Labs of US Army Labcom.

    That is: I worked at the laboratory that used to test nuclear bombs, before the test ban treaty. I didn’t get to push the button on a real bomb because of the test ban treaty, but some of my first supervisors did run the instrumentation on tests of real bombs. My generation made simulated nuclear explosions, I mean bursts. My lab also tested the electronics in a real bomb.

    The important parameter of EMP is that the rise time is 3 nanoseconds or less. Back in the day, we had no instrumentation that could measure a faster rise time. The extremely fast rise time allows EMP to get into equipment through small holes. The EME lab french fried every piece of electronics we tested at a very small fraction of threat level. The extremely fast rise time was the difficult problem until late 1972 when transzorbs were invented. A transzorb is a high-pulse-energy picosecond rise time zener diode.

    Look up Starfish Prime: There was one nuclear bomb test that made street lights go out in Hawaii miles away from the “burst.” Suppose that a burst occurred at an altitude of so many miles above Denver. This was de-classified long ago. Almost everything that uses electricity from Los Angeles to Chicago would suddenly quit working. No internet, no phones, no electricity, and your car would never run again because it has a computer in it. The whole USA would be back to about 1870. But the nuclear power plants would not be a danger to anybody.

    We have about 3 days warning of solar flares. NASA has a number of satellites that watch the sun constantly. There is a group of people dedicated to making solar storm forecasts. Since solar flares and coronal mass ejections do not make fast rise time pulses that nuclear bombs do, solar-caused voltages can be shorted to ground with slower acting devices. It isn’t the total energy of the pulse that is a problem so much as the rise time. With 3 days warning, any vulnerable equipment can be turned off and disconnected from any long wires.

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  5. 5. legendary 3:38 pm 04/21/2012

    To Asteroid Miner Just a curiosity: is it true that Russian aircraft fighters used vacuum tubes, instead of semiconductors (solid state), to avoid the avionics being damaged by EMPs?

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  6. 6. Quinn the Eskimo 9:54 pm 04/29/2012

    @Legendary; sorta but no. Russian fighters (and bombers) used much slower vacuum tubes because, at the time, they did not have a solid state electronics industry. The U.S. would not sell the Russians sophisticated electronics nor would out NATO allies. Yes, that made them superior to our forces in the context of EMP.

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