from ScienceNASA Website
In the 132-page report, experts detailed what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a "super solar flare" followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm.
They found that almost nothing is immune
from space weather - not even the water in your bathroom.
Auroras over Blair, Nebraska, during a geomagnetic storm in May 2005.
Photo credit: Mike
The problem begins with the electric power grid.
Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather.
Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area.
The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours (below image).
The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand. On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon.
It makes economic sense - but not
necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system
susceptible to wide-ranging "cascade failures."
He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power.
The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with,
What if the May 1921 superstorm occurred today?
A US map of vulnerable transformers with areas of probable system collapse encircled.
A state-by-state map of transformer vulnerability can be seen below.
The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen.
Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion,
Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921.
Power outages would be accompanied by,
...would all be affected.
Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair.
The total economic impact in the first
year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the
costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few
A web of interdependencies makes the modern economy especially sensitive to solar storms.
Source: Dept. of
Homeland Security. [Larger image]
What's the solution?
The report ends with a call for infrastructure designed to better withstand geomagnetic disturbances, improved GPS codes and frequencies, and improvements in space weather forecasting. Reliable forecasting is key. If utility and satellite operators know a storm is coming, they can take measures to reduce damage - e.g., disconnecting wires, shielding vulnerable electronics, powering down critical hardware.
A few hours without power is better than
a few weeks.
NASA physicists use data from these
missions to understand the underlying physics of flares and
geomagnetic storms; personnel at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction
Center use the findings, in turn, to hone
It could be 100 years away or just 100 days...
It could knock out all electricity on the
to now occur around mid-May of 2013
It's something to think about the next time you flush.