Solar Storms and Planetary Catastrophy

If the dire economic predictions from Ron Paul posted earlier aren’t bad enough, here’s some warnings from the New Scientist about how our entire way of life is at risk:

Over the last few decades, western civilisations have busily sown the seeds of their own destruction. Our modern way of life, with its reliance on technology, has unwittingly exposed us to an extraordinary danger: plasma balls spewed from the surface of the sun could wipe out our power grids, with catastrophic consequences.

The projections of just how catastrophic make chilling reading. “We’re moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster,” says Daniel Baker, a space weather expert based at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report.

It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma – charged high-energy particles – some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see “When hell comes to Earth”). If one should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth’s magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer’s magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer’s copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts. This is exactly what happened in the Canadian province of Quebec in March 1989, and six million people spent 9 hours without electricity. But things could get much, much worse than that.

Check out the article to see how much worse it can get, and what can be done to protect us:

The good news is that, given enough warning, the utility companies can take precautions, such as adjusting voltages and loads, and restricting transfers of energy so that sudden spikes in current don’t cause cascade failures. There is still more bad news, however. Our early warning system is becoming more unreliable by the day.

By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). The probe, launched in 1997, has a solar orbit that keeps it directly between the sun and Earth. Its uninterrupted view of the sun means it gives us continuous reports on the direction and velocity of the solar wind and other streams of charged particles that flow past its sensors. ACE can provide between 15 and 45 minutes’ warning of any incoming geomagnetic storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable.

However, observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was travelling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where ACE is positioned to Earth. “It arrived faster than we can do anything,” Hapgood says.

There is another problem. ACE is 11 years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan. The onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be, and there is no telling when they will finally give up the ghost. Furthermore, its sensors become saturated in the event of a really powerful solar flare. “It was built to look at average conditions rather than extremes,” Baker says.

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7 Comments

  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I am certainly not trying to discourage action in a situation where it might be necessary. However, I am curious about the probability of this risk.

    Many things are scientifically possible which have never happened except in a computer model or controlled laboratory conditions. Cold fusion is scientifically possible, but it either never happened or only ever happened once, by accident, and has never been successfully duplicated… it is now believed ‘improbable’ to the degree that many people have stopped trying.

    I would have liked to see some discussion of the probability in this article, which reads a trifle sensationalist in its description of apocalyptic doom and does not touch on how likely said apocalyptic doom is in any detail.

    I am not dismissing the danger, but a better written article would have been much more specific in the level of danger in its demands for counter-measures.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Regardless of the risk, assuming there is  real danger of this happening, it makes sense to keep systems operational to give advanced warning and allow a response. It is difficult to tell from the article how great the risk is, but a massive power outage is certainly something to try to avoid. 

    I don’t really know if the risk the risk here is meaningful, but I did think it was an article worth linking to.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I was commenting on the article, since you posted it. I felt it was worth raising some questions. I don’t deny the consequences are certainly something worth being concerned about. That is why I raised my concerns about the lack of clear and concrete statements about the risk level faced. Without those statements, this is sensational scary but not terribly informative.

  4. 4
    Fritz says:

    I subscribe to New Scientist.  I read New Scientist every week.  I really enjoy it.

    But…

    It really is the tabloid press of science news mags.  Every issue has at least one article that is completely off the wall.  You just have to keep that in mind when sourcing from that mag.

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    Fritz,

    I wouldn’t classify this as “completely off the wall.” You can’t tell how great the risk is from this article but I did find it interesting with regards to consideration of the ramifications of such a massive power outage (which we may or may not be at serious risk of) as well as the information on what is present to attempt to handle this. Primarily it was an interesting article to read. Beyond that, I’m not sure of its significance but after reading this I will be interested to see if there is more material published on the topic (preferably from additional sources).

  6. 6
    Fritz says:

    If this concerns you, then you should be aware of the plans to massively increase long-distance high-voltage lines (including much higher voltage DC lines) in order to efficiently use renewable energy.  Here’s a New Scientist article…

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126990.500-from-ac-to-dc-going-green-with-supergrids.html

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    I’m not sure how much concern this warrants but I got at least two things out of the article:

    If Obama ever proposes money to update the ACE explorer and Bobby Jindal then knocks him for spending money to monitor solar storms (as with volcanoes), I’ll be sympathetic towards the spending.

    If I ever need an idea for a disaster novel or movie, there is plenty of material in here to start with.

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