Space environmentalist warns we need to better prepare for solar storms

Apr 19, 2012 by report
Artist's depiction of solar wind particles interacting with Earth's magnetosphere. Sizes are not to scale. Image: NASA

(Phys.org) -- In the business of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook things that could cause a serious disruption to how life is lived; floods happen, hurricanes, volcanoes and tsunamis like the one that devastated Japan last year. And now it seems, there is one more potential disaster we should add to the list: geomagnetic storms caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun. Mike Hapgood head of the space environment group with RAL Space, part of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, has written a commentary published in the journal Nature, suggesting that it’s time we quit burying our heads in the sand regarding the devastating impact a serious solar storm could have on modern populations.

The problem he points out, is that we’ve become so dependent on electricity and electronic communications, that a big solar storm could cause power grids the world over to go down, and for GPS to become non-functional for an unknown amount of time, causing havoc across a wide spectrum of systems such as those used by the military, the Internet, financial institutions and of course aviation. And what’s more, he says, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way because there are many things that could be done to prevent such a nasty outcome.

He suggests, for example, that power grids could be upgraded to better withstand such an onslaught. He cites how upgrades were made to many grids the world over after a solar storm in 1989 knocked out power to a large section of Quebec. Unfortunately, that storm was rather puny compared to other storms that have hit Earth. One in 1921 was bigger, and another in 1859 was so powerful that it caused telegraph machines to set fire to cable offices. A storm today of that magnitude could cause power outages lasting in some places for months. Upgrading transformers even more, he says, could prevent such an outcome.

But then the question is, how far do you go? Since no one really knows how bad solar storms can get, no one really knows how much protection to build into systems. Because of that, Hapgood says we need to do our homework. There are records, he points out, of prior events and what occurred as a result, but they are all mostly hand written and stored in unknown locations. We need to find those, digitize them and make them available to researchers.

We need to get better at forecasting too, he adds. Currently we get from ten minutes to about an hour’s notice for solar storms, very little time to take preventive action. Better satellites could be built and put into space that could open that window a little wider, perhaps giving grid operators or those that run satellites enough time to take evasive action that could save such facilities from damage.

In summation, he writes, we as a world community need to take the possibility of a serious more seriously and then start doing things to minimize the damage that could result. Failure to do so could lead to widespread chaos and unknown circumstances thereafter.

Explore further: Asian air pollution affect Pacific Ocean storms

More information: Astrophysics: Prepare for the coming space weather storm, Nature 484, 311–313 (19 April 2012) doi:10.1038/484311a

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GSwift7
2.6 / 5 (5) Apr 19, 2012
suggesting that its time we quit burying our heads in the sand


He lost me at that point.

But then the question is, how far do you go? Since no one really knows how bad solar storms can get, no one really knows how much protection to build into systems


Yes, the question is "how far do you go?", but the reason is not because you don't know how bad it could be. We already know that it could be bad enough to destroy certain things, and anything worse than that is really irrelevant. You can't get any worse than destroyed.

So the question boiles down to how long it takes to replace things versus the effect of them being destroyed versus the cost of protecting them ahead of time to prevent them from being destroyed.

It's really about lives and money.
GSwift7
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2012
The practical answer we are using right now is a mixed solution. Hospitals have full backup power systems, for example. Power companies have a combination of EM hardened equipment (the big critical stuff) and then also "disposable" gear that they know will fail, but they keep a good supply of replacement gear in staged locations to get key areas back online quickly.
A2G
1 / 5 (2) Apr 19, 2012
I agree with GSwift7 here. Everything we do has a risk and a ROI.

You can get killed going for a walk. But what do you do and how far do you go to avoid all risks in life.

If the Sun were to really "blow" it is all over anyways. But am I going to waste one second "preparing" for that? NFW.
rubberman
5 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2012
Most local power equipment (the main switchgear and tertiary power panels) have both surge suppression and ground fault tech. built into the main device (Usually an electronic trip breaker) so modern industry doesn't have to worry too much. Any homeowner with expensive electronics would likely have a residential version wired into their home panel. The wild card is utilities preparedness as the weak points will be anywhere there is a connection between line components (pole mounted or underground transformers and insulators where two cables connect) and unsheilded electronics.
nuge
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
The most effective protective measure that is really feasible is an advanced warning system that would alert power companies everywhere to turn off all generators and disconnect all transformers momentarily. You wouldn't want to design for a power system to be able to survive the worst geomagnetic storm events; the costs would be astronomical and these would be passed down to the consumer. And all for something that might happen once for a few hours every 300 years.
El_Nose
not rated yet Apr 21, 2012
the funny part is that the only planes that use GPS are your privately owned planes with propellers -- the major airlines planes still to this day do not use GPS -- thats why when they fail and sink into the ocean - like last years tragedy in south america - no one know where the heck they are

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