Are We Prepared for a Catastrophic Solar Storm?
2011 07 01

From: popsci.com



A solar disaster isn't a question of if, but when--and it looks like soon

One of the biggest disasters we face would begin about 18 hours after the sun spit out a 10-billion-ton ball of plasma--something it has done before and is sure to do again. When the ball, a charged cloud of particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME), struck the Earth, electrical currents would spike through the power grid. Transformers would be destroyed. Lights would go out. Food would spoil and--since the entire transportation system would also be shut down--go unrestocked.

Within weeks, backup generators at nuclear power plants would have run down, and the electric pumps that supply water to cooling ponds, where radioactive spent fuel rods are stored, would shut off. Multiple meltdowns would ensue. “Imagine 30 Chernobyls across the U.S.,” says electrical engineer John Kappenman, an expert on the grid’s vulnerability to space weather. A CME big enough to take out a chunk of the grid is what scientists and insurers call a high-consequence, low-frequency event. Many space-weather scientists say the Earth is due for one soon. Although CMEs can strike anytime, they are closely correlated to highs in the 11-year sunspot cycle. The current cycle will peak in July 2013.

The most powerful CME in recorded history occurred during a solar cycle with a peak similar to the one scientists are predicting in 2013. During the so-called Carrington Event in 1859, electrical discharges in the U.S. shocked telegraph operators and set their machines on fire. A CME in 1921 disrupted radio across the East Coast and telephone operations in most of Europe. In a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report, scientists estimated that a 1921-level storm could knock out 350 transformers on the American grid, leaving 130 million people without electricity. Replacing broken transformers would take a long time because most require up to two years to manufacture.

Once outside power is lost, nuclear plants have diesel generators that can pump water to spent-fuel cooling pools for up to 30 days. The extent of the meltdown threat is well-documented. A month before the Fukushima plant in Japan went offline in March, the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a committee of engineers, filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommending the augmentation of nuclear plants’ emergency backup systems. The petition claims that a severe solar storm would be far worse than a 9.0-magnitude quake and could leave about two thirds of the country’s nuclear plants without power for one to two years.

Preventing a surge from a CME would be costly. With enough warning (at least a few hours, probably), power companies could shut transformers off entirely, turning them back on after the storm. But shutting down the grid on such a large scale would cost billions. To confidently do so, forecasting must be accurate.

Last October, NASA scientists announced its Solar Shield program to monitor solar eruptions and predict storms. Though a good step, the system uses a satellite that was launched in 1997 and designed to run just five years. No other country has anything similar, or as advanced.

Our backup systems aren’t in place yet, either. The Department of Homeland Security is funding the development of an emergency replacement transformer, but it won’t be field-ready for several years. Kappenman has developed a $100,000 capacitor to block storm-induced surges, but these are unproven in emergency situations. “A massive solar storm is a ‘low probability’ event the same way a 100-year flood is,” Thomas Popik, the author of the NRC petition, says. “Just as we build levees to protect against 100-year floods, we need to build protection against 100-year solar storms.”

Source: popsci.com



Related Articles
Solar Storm Warning 2011-2012
More Active Sun Means Nasty Solar Storms Ahead
Massive Solar Flare Storm Warnings for the Next Few Years
What's Wrong With the Sun?
Huge solar flare jams radio, satellite signals: NASA
"Dramatic" solar flare could disrupt Earth communications
Scientists predict rare "hibernation" of sunspots?


Latest News from our Front Page

Stop creating a climate of fear!
2014 08 27
ok. listen up political correct people! if you’re someone who reflexively calls others “racists” or “neofascists” without first checking into whether or not they actually are, you need to STOP it, because you’re creating a climate of fear in which people are afraid to do their jobs. and now i’m not talking about some academics sitting comfortably in their ivy towers, ...
Gov. Jerry Brown to Mexican Illegals: ’You’re All Welcome in California’
2014 08 27
On Monday evening, California Governor Jerry Brown said all Mexicans, including illegal immigrants, are welcome in California. According to the Los Angeles Times, while introducing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who said America is "the other Mexico," Brown "spoke about the interwoven histories of Mexico and California." He "nodded to the immigrants in the room, saying it didn’t matter if ...
Election Posters in New Sweden
2014 08 27
Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has promised continued mass immigration at the expense of welfare reform and tax cuts. Reinfeldt’s Moderates party consequently does everything in their power to recruit immigrants’ votes. Placards for the forthcoming elections, widely distributed in immigrant-dominated enclaves in Sweden, has Arabic text, the language that now increasingly is dominating major parts of "New Sweden." In the ...
Gender Madness
2014 08 27
Gender Madness - RT RT: "Tanya, a mathematician from Sweden, is writing a blog about gender madness. She wants to find its origins. She discusses the topic with different people, meets some gender specialists and even considers conducting some experiments." Yes, this is a very erratic and "different" short film, but Kajsa Bergkvist, the girl making the film has a ...
Could Greece’s mystery tomb lie intact? Well-preserved headless sphinxes
2014 08 27
Well-preserved headless sphinxes hint that grave dating back to Alexander the Great Archaeologists are hopeful that an ancient mound in northern Greece could hold the untouched remains of an important senior official from the time of Alexander the Great. Excavations at the ‘incredibly important’ tomb have revealed a pair of sphinxes guarding the grave’s entrance. The two sculptures were found under an arch ...
More News »