public enemy #1 – the sun?

Wanted - for destruction of society as we know it?

The subtitle of this blog promises reading to keep you up at night… so, here goes…  aside from creating hot weather and giving us skin cancer, our Sun threatens our technological society in yet another, even scarier way.  Solar activity can have a real effect on the Earth’s magnetic field, which in turn, can wreak havoc with such technological niceties such as GPS, radio communications, transpolar air travel and, the electrical grid which makes our way of life possible.

And depending on whom you ask, the Sun may be preparing to get pissed… or maybe not… but if it is, we could all be affected.  Read on if you dare…

In March, 1989, Canada’s Quebec province was plunged into darkness for 9 hours as a result of disruption to Earth’s magnetic fields caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) occurring 93 million miles from us.  While this was a dramatic event, it was not the largest on record.  Back in 1921, another solar storm caused took out the New York Central railroad’s switching and signaling infrastructure and interfered with intercontinental communications.

The grand-daddy of all solar storms on record happened in 1859.  The so-called “Carrington Event” was three times more powerful than the storm that put Quebec in the dark.  This storm caused the failure of telegraph systems (the Victorian equivalent of the Internet) all over North America and Europe and sparked fires as currents surged through overloaded wires.  While the impact of the storm was impressive, times were simpler back then – folks did not rely on the satellites, power grids and other electric and electronic gewgaws that we are so dependent on today.  The fires were extinguished and telegraph service was restored.  However, had the 1859 storm happened today, things would be quite different.

We would have somewhere between 30 and 72 hours notice of a significant solar storm heading towards Earth, thanks to a number of space based instruments which keep a wary eye on the Sun.  Not a very long time…

I am going to limit my discussion to the effects of a super sized solar tantrum to the electrical grid… after all, without the grid, most of the things we take for granted in modern life (light, heat, airconditioning, media, refrigerated food, transportation, internet porn, you get the picture) would not be available if the power grid were to be offline for a significant amount of time.  Researchers from the National Academy of Sciences here in the USA did a study of the projected societal effects of space weather back in 2008 and their simulations came up with a scary scenario, electrical grid-wise speaking.

See those areas outlined in the map of the US above?  Those are areas where the US power grid would be “susceptible to collapse” in the event of a solar storm similar to the one experienced in 1921 (not the monster of 1859, which is thought to be a once in 500 year event).  The report goes on to predict that in such a situation, more than 300 high voltage transformers would need to be replaced after such an event.  These are not items you can buy at Home Depot – they are complex, custom designed and built items which are only available from a small number of suppliers.  Restoration of the grid in the affected area (where 130 million people live) could take months or years and power shortages in the affected area could could last for years.

Looking at the map, I noticed a few things.  First, the entire eastern third of the US and the Pacific Northwest would be the most heavily affected areas.  Buh bye, DC, Boston, NYC, Seattle.  Farewell, financial system!  Should this scenario come to pass, we are looking at a disaster on a scale dwarfing anything we have dealt with in the past.  Depending on the areas affected worldwide, the global balance of power could shift drastically – he who has the electricity has quite an advantage of he who does not.

So why worry about this now in particular?  Well, the Sun has been very, very quiet lately, and NASA is predicting that the level of activity is going to ramp up dramatically between now and 2013. In response, a number of experts got together in Washington, DC on June 8th to discuss how we can improve our ability to detect risky space weather and to harden our critical infrastructures to protect them from the effects of solar storms.

Now, not everyone is buying NASA’s raising of the alert level, but it seems to me that this type of a low-probability, very high-consequence event deserves some attention from the powers that be.  Even if we don’t get slammed by a once in a century event during this solar cycle, smaller events could produce severe localized effects and depending on the locality, dramatic systemic effects on the economy.  Personally, I see efforts to learn more about solar storms, how to better predict them, and how to protect our electrical, communications, GPS and other critical infrastructure are deserving of some serious attention and investment.  I mean, think of the Internet cat videos and porn!  And society at large.

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