Space weathermen forecast a slam-bang sun storm last week, but the promised thrill show of charged particles firing up temperate zone auroras sort of went pfffft. Not the weathermen's fault, of course. Like their meteorological counterparts called on to forecast atmospheric tempests, they freely admit they don't know everything about space weather.
NOAA space weather expert Joe Kunches told NPR that figuring out the magnetic orientation of solar bursts headed our way is a bit like a baseball hitter struggling to read the spin on an incoming fastball.
legend has it that the great Red Sox slugger Ted Williams could do exactly that. Perhaps someday, a Teddy Ballgame of the space weather trade could help us get a firmer handle on incoming solar wallops.
Because someday, perhaps soon with the sun in an active cycle, Old Sol is going to throw us a curveball that could inflict nasty damage to communications systems and the electric power grid.
Let's focus on the power grid, which makes the difference between a 21st century life of abundance and convenience and an 18th century life of stoop labor and deprivation.
This week's solar conniption was the result of a "coronal mass ejection," a burst of plasma that heaves billions and billions of ionized particles towards the Earth. Once those particles reach our planet, they slam into its magnetic field, lighting up skies in the far northern and southern latitudes with dramatic splashes of color that could rival any masterpiece in a modern art museum. But they also can cause havoc in engineered systems that depend on electricity or radio waves--such as the power grid.
As coronal mass ejections go, this week's event was fair to middlin' in intensity. Not so when the sun threw a one-two punch back in 1859. Records of the time indicate that auroras were visible in parts where such celestial dramas are unheard of Cuba, for example. The telegraph networks that were the cutting edge of communications in those days sputtered and crashed under the geomagnetic assault.
Today, a really big solar storm could induce unwanted currents that could wreck extra high-voltage transformers that serve as the power grid's vital organs. Fixing such machines in the field is not practical, nor are spares typically available for immediate plug-in. This is serious--our society is much more dependent on engineered infrastructure now than it was in 1859. Breakdowns of telegraph systems in 1859 did not put human health and safety at grave risk. Breakdowns of power grids in 2012 would.
A federal advisory commission noted in a 2008 report that "All other infrastructures rely on electric power." The grid is the greatest engineering achievement of the past century, a technological marvel that shelters us from excessive heat and cold, keeps our food healthy, pumps clean water into our homes, runs the motors in the factories that make all the products we take for granted, and stores and spreads exabytes of information, good and bad, around the world at Einsteinian speeds.
Take all that away and what do you have: A 2012 civilization thrust into an 1859 world. The 2008 advisory commission drily noted: "Machines will stop; transportation and communication will be severely restricted; heating, cooling, and lighting will cease; food and water supplies will be interrupted; and many people may die." The damage could total $1 trillion to $2 trillion, according to a 2009 National Research Council report.
We haven't experienced a solar event like the 1859 storm since then, but a 1989 sunburst offered a preview. That year, a solar storm blacked out the grid serving the Canadian province of Quebec and knocked out the Salem nuclear power plant in New Jersey. The nuke likely would have been down for a year had there not been a spare plant transformer on hand.
There are ways to "harden" the grid to protect against the sizzle of a king-size coronal mass ejection. By one estimate, shielding the grid from a geomagnetic storm would cost less than 0.03 percent of gross national product. Pennies on the dollar, considering what could be at stake.
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