Getting ready for the next big solar storm

Jun 22, 2011 by Dr. Tony Phillips
Modern power grids are vulnerable to solar storms. Credit: NASA/Martin Stojanovski

(PhysOrg.com) -- In Sept. 1859, on the eve of a below-average1 solar cycle, the sun unleashed one of the most powerful storms in centuries. The underlying flare was so unusual, researchers still aren't sure how to categorize it. The blast peppered Earth with the most energetic protons in half-a-millennium, induced electrical currents that set telegraph offices on fire, and sparked Northern Lights over Cuba and Hawaii.

This week, officials have gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to ask themselves a simple question: What if it happens again?

"A similar storm today might knock us for a loop," says Lika Guhathakurta, a solar physicist at NASA headquarters. "Modern society depends on high-tech systems such as grids, GPS, and satellite communications--all of which are vulnerable to solar storms."

She and more than a hundred others are attending the fifth annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum—"SWEF" for short. The purpose of SWEF is to raise awareness of space weather and its effects on society especially among policy makers and emergency responders. Attendees come from the US Congress, FEMA, power companies, the United Nations, NASA, NOAA and more.

As 2011 unfolds, the sun is once again on the eve of a below-average —at least that’s what forecasters are saying. The "Carrington event" of 1859 (named after astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the instigating flare) reminds us that strong storms can occur even when the underlying cycle is nominally weak.

In 1859 the worst-case scenario was a day or two without telegraph messages and a lot of puzzled sky watchers on tropical islands.

In 2011 the situation would be more serious. An avalanche of blackouts carried across continents by long-distance power lines could last for weeks to months as engineers struggle to repair damaged transformers. Planes and ships couldn’t trust units for navigation. Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could have the economic impact of 20 hurricane Katrinas.

As policy makers meet to learn about this menace, NASA researchers a few miles away are actually doing something about it:

"We can now track the progress of in 3 dimensions as the storms bear down on Earth," says Michael Hesse, chief of the GSFC Space Weather Lab and a speaker at the forum. "This sets the stage for actionable space weather alerts that could preserve and other high-tech assets during extreme periods of solar activity."

They do it using data from a fleet of NASA spacecraft surrounding the sun. Analysts at the lab feed the information into a bank of supercomputers for processing. Within hours of a major eruption, the computers spit out a 3D movie showing where the storm will go, which planets and spacecraft it will hit, and predicting when the impacts will occur. This kind of "interplanetary forecast" is unprecedented in the short history of space weather forecasting.


These 3D Heliospheric animated models, developed by the Community Coordinated Modeling Center based at the Goddard Space Flight Center, show how the June 21, 2011 CME cloud might appear as it sweeps past Earth. Credit: NASA/CCMC

"This is a really exciting time to work as a space weather forecaster," says Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab. "The emergence of serious physics-based space weather models is putting us in a position to predict if something major will happen."

Some of the computer models are so sophisticated, they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes. These currents are what do the most damage to power transformers. An experimental project named "Solar Shield" led by Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.

"Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts," says Pulkkinen.

Another SWEF speaker, John Allen of NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate, pointed out that while people from all walks of life can be affected by space weather, no one is out on the front lines quite like astronauts.

"Astronauts are routinely exposed to four times as much radiation as industrial radiation workers on Earth," he says. "It's a serious occupational hazard."

keeps careful track of each astronaut's accumulated dosage throughout their careers. Every launch, every space walk, every solar flare is carefully accounted for. If an astronaut gets too close to the limits ... he or she might not be allowed out of the space station! Accurate space weather alerts can help keep these exposures under control by, e.g., postponing spacewalks when flares are likely.

Speaking at the forum, Allen called for a new kind of forecast: "We could use All Clear alerts. In addition to knowing when it's dangerous to go outside, we'd also like to know when it's safe. This is another frontier for forecasters--not only telling us when a sunspot will erupt, but also when it won't."

The educational mission of SWEF is key to storm preparedness. As Lika Guhathakurta and colleague Dan Baker of the University of Colorado asked in a June 17th New York Times op-ed: "What good are alerts if people don’t understand them and won’t react to them?"

By spreading the word, SWEF will help.

More information about the meeting, including a complete program of speakers, may be found at the SWEF 2011 home page.

Explore further: New satellite sensor will analyze and predict severe space weather

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User comments : 14

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omatumr
1.2 / 5 (13) Jun 22, 2011
Thank you for the story.

And thank you, Dr. Lika Guhathakurta, for speaking candidly about how little we actually know about Earth's heat source - the Sun

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are apparently driven from deep-seated magnetic fields that originate in:

a.) The neutron star at the core of the Sun, or
b.) The iron-rich mantle that surrounds the core.

See references:

1. "The Sun's origin, composition and source of energy", 32nd LPSC, 1041 (March 12-16, 2001)

http://xxx.lanl.g.../0411255

2. "Super-fluidity in the solar interior: Implications for solar eruptions and climate",
Journal of Fusion Energy 21, 193-198 (2002)

3. "Earth's Heat Source - The Sun", Energy and Environment 20, 131-144 (2009)

http://arxiv.org/pdf/0905.0704

4. "Neutron Repulsion", The APEIRON Journal, in press, 19 pages (2011)
http://arxiv.org/...2.1499v1

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel


http://arxiv.org/.../0501441
omatumr
1 / 5 (9) Jun 22, 2011
"Super-fluidity in the solar interior: Implications for solar eruptions and climate", Journal of Fusion Energy 21, 193-198 (2002)


http://arxiv.org/...501441v1
ian807
5 / 5 (2) Jun 22, 2011
While the study is laudable, what could we actually do if such an event occurred in the next few years? I doubt that we'll harden our electrical infrastructure significantly any time soon, especially in an economic downturn.
omatumr
1.3 / 5 (9) Jun 22, 2011
While the study is laudable, what could we actually do if such an event occurred in the next few years? I doubt that we'll harden our electrical infrastructure significantly any time soon, especially in an economic downturn.


I agree.

Earth's heat source is violently unstable.

But political pressures since ~1972 apparently prevented most solar scientists from acknowledging experimental evidence that the Sun is anything other than a stable, homogeneous ball of hydrogen.

that_guy
5 / 5 (4) Jun 22, 2011
While the study is laudable, what could we actually do if such an event occurred in the next few years? I doubt that we'll harden our electrical infrastructure significantly any time soon, especially in an economic downturn.

Yes, but the study specifically points out that we have advance warning (A few days I believe), as well as impact analysis available to us.

There are more ways to mitigate the impace than just making everything immune to solar storms. We can take key pieces of infrastructure offline so that when the storm passes, we have more working resources available to recover with. We also have some idea of the types of impact we can expect at different locations.

Knowing what to expect has a huge effect on its impact.
Drew_L
5 / 5 (5) Jun 23, 2011
Thank you for the story.

And thank you, Dr. Lika Guhathakurta, for speaking candidly about how little we actually know about Earth's heat source - the Sun

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are apparently driven from deep-seated magnetic fields that originate in:

a.) The neutron star at the core of the Sun, or
b.) The iron-rich mantle that surrounds the core.

See references:

1. "The Sun's origin, composition and source of energy", 32nd LPSC, 1041 (March 12-16, 2001)

http://xxx.lanl.g.../0411255


none of these explain the suns corona they simply do not even mention why it is so much hotter than the rest of the sun

Shootist
1.8 / 5 (6) Jun 23, 2011
While the study is laudable, what could we actually do if such an event occurred in the next few years? I doubt that we'll harden our electrical infrastructure significantly any time soon, especially in an economic downturn.


Don't look at it from a Collectivist's standpoint.

There is much you can personally do to protect yourself and your family, and by extension, your neighbors, from disasters such as this.

Relying on the Government to save you is a sure way to die.
GSwift7
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 23, 2011
"A similar storm today might knock us for a loop,"


I think that might be an understatement. The effects could be very dramatic. Hard to say just how bad it might be.
FrankHerbert
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 23, 2011
There is much you can personally do to protect yourself and your family, and by extension, your neighbors, from disasters such as this.


Duck and cover? Duct tape and plastic? Lol.

So I guess you, and by extension, your neighbors, have a bucket truck lying around to fix the power infrastructure in your neighborhood. Power cables, transformers, etc, get mighty expensive when you're talking power transmission.

You're acting like having a few days of food and batteries on hand is protesting against the government. It's not. No one in the government has suggesting anyone ever do otherwise.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (2) Jun 23, 2011
LaViolette has recently shown that dramatic changes in solar activity triggered the last ice age. His cosmological model includes periodic cosmic ray storms from our galactic core (superwaves), which push interstellar dust into the inner solar system, increasing solar activity, and changing the thermal equilibrium of Earth. Given such an event, we will need a cosmic weather forecast warning to take shelter underground when Sagittarius is in the sky.

http://www.spaced...999.html

http://nanobionex...e-earth/]http://nanobionex...e-earth/[/url]

The March 28th galactic core explosion has shown that the cosmic ray intensity can be an order of magnitude higher during the initial day or two of the event. If the lights go out world-wide, get underground immediately.

http://nanobionex...e-earth/]http://nanobionex...e-earth/[/url]

SteveL
5 / 5 (1) Jun 23, 2011
"The March 28th galactic core explosion has shown that the cosmic ray intensity can be an order of magnitude higher during the initial day or two of the event. If the lights go out world-wide, get underground immediately".

Our glactic core, over 26,000 light years away, exploded on March 28th? How did we know?
Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Jun 23, 2011
There is much you can personally do to protect yourself and your family, and by extension, your neighbors, from disasters such as this.


Duck and cover? Duct tape and plastic? Lol.

So I guess you, and by extension, your neighbors, have a bucket truck lying around to fix the power infrastructure in your neighborhood. Power cables, transformers, etc, get mighty expensive when you're talking power transmission.

You're acting like having a few days of food and batteries on hand is protesting against the government. It's not. No one in the government has suggesting anyone ever do otherwise.


Bucket truck? No, but I"m self sufficient on food and water for about 5 months. Plus other flood/earthquake/hurricane/tsunami/civil_unrest/thermo_nuclear_Armageddon preparedness whatnot. We won't sit in the dark and freeze, for awhile anyway.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (2) Jun 23, 2011
The intended link failed.

http://www.physor...ent.html

http://www.swift....0450158/

Likely candidate for an example of core explosions. Time will tell....

Our core last exploded during last ice age (our time). Volley now passing through the Crab nebula. Minor eruptions perhaps periodically in between. We may soon be due again, according to LaViolette. I plan to head to an underground parking structure if Sagittarius lights up suddenly. Hopefully, it will be well into the future.
hush1
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2011
The Sun is not UBL.

You have a globe, critical, major personality disorder.
Start by offering Dr. Tony Phillips psychiatric examination, evaluation and treatment. For free. And you will never see another word from him again.

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