Friday, February 26, 2010

Next Expected Solar Storm In 2012 Could Leave Millions Worldwide Without Power, Water, And Communications, As Gamed By NOAA

National Public Radio reports that a tabletop simulation of an extreme solar storm striking the earth conducted in Boulder, CO could leave millions of people around the world without electricity, running water, or phone service, if the storm was as intense as those which occurred in 1859 and 1921. A March 1999 Washington Post article discusses the effects of previous solar storms. Solar storms happen when an eruption or explosion on the surface of the sun sends radiation or electrically charged particles toward Earth; minor storms are common and can produce spectacular aurora displays in polar latitudes.

Participating in the exercise was the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Space Weather Prediction Center, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Officials predict there will be another storm as big as the ones in 1921 and 1859 — a sort of solar Katrina. But the impact is likely to be far worse than in previous solar storms because of our growing dependence on satellites and other electronic devices that are vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation.

In the exercise, the first sign of trouble came when radiation began disrupting radio signals and GPS devices. Within 10-20 minutes, electrically charged particles basically took out most of the commercial satellites that transmit telephone conversations, TV shows and huge amounts of other related data pertinent to daily life.

The worst damage came nearly a day later, when the solar storm began to induce electrical currents in high voltage power lines. The currents were strong enough to destroy transformers around the globe, leaving millions of people in northern latitudes without power. As a result, many people also lost running water, heat, air conditioning and phone service. Hospitals and other emergency facilities had to rely on emergency generators with fuel for only two or three days.

From Wired.com, we find out that many scientists expect the next solar "super-storm" to take place in 2012. The effects will be magnified not only by our greater dependence upon satellites, but also due to the existence of an unusually large hole in Earth’s geomagnetic shield. Ten or twenty times more particles are coming through this crack than expected. The resultant catastrophe could cost the United States $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year, and full recovery could take 4 to 10 years.

Mitigation Efforts: Shutting down the grid when we see a storm coming, and starting it up again afterwards is not considered a viable option, and not just because of the possibility of a costly false alarm. Power grid operators now rely on one satellite called ACE, which sits about a million miles out from Earth in what’s called the gravity well, the balancing point between sun and earth. It was designed to run for five years. It’s 11 years old, is losing steam, and there are no plans to replace it. ACE provides about 15 to 45 minutes of heads-up to power plant operators if something’s coming in. They can shunt loads, or shut different parts of the grid. But to just shut the grid off and restart it is a $10 billion proposition.

But some scientists believe there is another way possibly mitigate the potential damage, making it less catastrophic and more localized. An April 17th, 2009 article in Wired.com discusses mitigation strategies. One major problem is that ultra-high voltage transformers, (500,000- and 700,000-kilovolts) are particularly vulnerable. The United States uses more of these than any other nation. Furthermore, if these blow, they generally can’t be fixed in the field, and sometimes cannot be repaired at all. Replacement becomes the only option, and currently there’s a one- to three-year lag time between placing an order and getting a new transformer. The increased use of higher operating voltages in our grid is actually transforming our grid into more like an antenna for geomagnetic storms.

The prospective solution, although not yet thoroughly tested, appears to be ground resistors. These would be comparatively small and inexpensive resistors inserted into the transformers’ ground connections. The addition of that little bit of resistance would significantly reduce the amount of the geomagnetically induced currents that flow into the grid. They look like a device made out of cast iron or stainless steel, about the size of a washing machine. Each resistor is expected to cost around $40,000. A total of 5,000 ground resistors, at an expected total cost of $150 million, are considered sufficient to protect the entire grid in the United States.

Recommended additional reading:

(1). "Severe Space Weather Events — Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts": Table of Contents HERE, PDF summary HERE, download full PDF HERE.

(2). "Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End": Note that this resource is not only skewed towards pessimism, but the author also draws from sources such as Revelations, the I Ching, the Islamic Hadith, The Bible Code, and the ancient Mayan Long Calendar. While of value, these are not considered scientific resources.

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