by Robert Bast
Our Sun has a cycle of roughly 11 years.
At the maximum/peak there
are many more sunspots than at the minimum, and 50 times as many
solar flares. The next maximum is due in late 2012/early 2013.
Solar flares are sometimes accompanied by solar proton events and
coronal mass ejections (see below). CMEs that are directed towards
Earth can interact with our planet’s magnetic field to produce a
Not every solar storm will produce all three
elements but the largest solar storms typically do.
The Components of a Solar Storm
This is the normal pattern of events:
Arrival Time: 8 minutes (speed of light)
Effect Duration: 1-2 hours
Harm: Electromagnetic radiation in the
form of X-rays, extreme ultraviolet rays, gamma ray radiation and
radio bursts. They can disrupt radar, satellite communications and
Solar Proton Event
Arrival Time: 15 minutes to a few hours
Effect Duration: Days
Harm: Cosmic Rays which can cause
satellite disorientation, spacecraft electronics damage, spacecraft
solar panel degradation, extreme radiation hazard to astronauts,
high altitude aircraft radiation, shortwave radio fades and
disruption in polar regions, ozone layer depletion, cardiac arrest,
dementia and cancer.
Arrival time: 2 or 4 days
Effect Duration: Days
Harm: CMEs consist of gas and charged
plasma of energy particles A flood of charged particle and electrons
in the ionosphere flow from west to east, inducing powerful
electrical currents in the ground that surge through natural rock.
CMEs can have the following affects: radar errors, radio anomalies,
compass errors, electrical power blackouts, oil and gas pipeline
corrosion, phone line & equipment damage, electrical shock hazard,
electrical fires, heart attacks and strokes.
CMEs are also the cause
Solar Storms of the last 150 years
Here are a few examples of modern harm
from solar storms, followed by the most famous storm to date. More
details can be found at
1921 - Telegraph system down west of
the Mississippi, Central New England railroad station destroyed
1942 - Allied radar disrupted during
1972 - Transformer explodes in
1984 - Air Force One loses
communications en route to China
1989 - Quebec power outage
1989 - Toronto stock exchange
1994 - Canada's Anik E1 satellite
goes off air for 7 hours, affecting news and telephone services.
Then Anik E2 goes off air for good
2011 - On Valentine's Day some radio
communications were lost, causing some polar flights to be
September 1, 1859 - The
Just before noon... English astronomer
Richard C. Carrington was sketching a curious group of sunspots -
curious on account of the dark areas’ enormous size. At 11:18 a.m.
he witnessed an intense white light flash from two locations within
the sunspot group.
He called out in vain to anyone in the
observatory to come see the brief five-minute spectacle, but
solitary astronomers seldom have an audience to share their
excitement. Seventeen hours later in the Americas a second wave of
auroras turned night to day as far south as Panama.
read the newspaper by their crimson and green light. Gold miners in
the Rocky Mountains woke up and ate breakfast at 1 a.m., thinking
the sun had risen on a cloudy day.
Telegraph systems became unusable
across Europe and North America.
In New York thousands of people lined
the streets to view the auroral display, which was seen across North
From August 28 through September 4,
auroral displays of extraordinary brilliance were observed
throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and
were seen as far south as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Central America
in the Northern Hemisphere and in the Southern Hemisphere as far
north as Santiago, Chile.
Severe Space Weather Events
Remarkably, in some U.S. telegraph
offices, operators disconnected the batteries and sent telegraphs
using only the current induced by the aurora. But then life
went on as usual and
the Carrington Event was soon forgotten about.
Even for scientists it was a curiosity, about as important as
studying the seventh wave at the seashore... and it is only recently
that this curiosity has been considered a serious threat to our
The Sun Can Harm Our Infrastructure
Since 1859 we have seen the arrival of
electronics, and with time our reliance on electronics has grown
A massive solar storm can harm our electrical grids,
without which electronic products cannot operate (unless they run on
batteries). Apart from some relatively minor events, the Sun has not
yet attacked our grids, but that could just be good luck.
primary sense, a repeat of the Carrington Event would most likely
cause the following damage:
In March 1989 an X15 flare caused the
entire Hydro Quebec system to blackout, with 6 million customers
going without electricity for between 9 hours and several days.
During the last solar maximum of 2000/2001, NASA estimates that the
wholesale cost of electricity in the USA rose by $500 million to
cover the costs of solar storm damage.
The tracks are long metal
conductors. Currents from a CME can damage signaling systems and
ignite fires in railroad control stations.
Oil and Gas Pipelines
Can suffer from corrosion
and potentially failure.
Telephone Land Lines and Undersea Cables
railway tracks and pipelines, phone lines and cables are also
conductors. The induced current (from a CME) can damage transmission
lines and any attached equipment tied to those lines. It can also
cause equipment fires and people could receive severe electrical
As an example, Japan's Advanced
Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics stopped functioning due to
a solar storm in July 2000, and due to power losses it crashed to
Earth eight months later. A bigger storm will likely knock out more
satellites, including those that provide communications and GPS.
Radio and GPS
An x17 flare in Oct 2003 disrupted
GPS functionality. According to the US Navy's
"the FAA’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), which uses GPS for
aircraft navigation, was seriously impacted during the severe storms
on October 29 and 30, and resulted in commercial aircraft being
unable to use the WAAS for precision approaches."
But the flow on effect would be substantial.
created this graphic that is really just a brief overview of how
inter-connected these things are:
Here are just some of things we'd need to live without:
Banks won't be able to operate,
nor will ATMs - they also use GPS for time-stamping transactions.
Traffic lights won't work, causing traffic jams initially. Police
and emergency services will struggle to communicate. Empty store
shelves will not be refilled. Almost everyone will be unable to work
their regular job.
Some cities have gravity-fed water
available, but in most places we rely on electrical pumps to get
water to our homes. Electricity is also needed at water purification
plants. Apart from drinking water, consider that we use it to wash,
to flush toilets, and to move sewage away from our homes. Without
electricity many sewage plants will not operate normally.
Heating and Cooling
The loss of these could kill
people during the winter and summer months.
Energy and Fuel
Pipelines can fail, and the
normal way to access stored fuel is with an electric pump. While
manual pumping might get gasoline out at a gas station, the
authorities or thugs will likely be in control.
And then there's a special danger:
Nuclear Power Plants
Without electricity there's
only diesel generators to keep the plant cool and avoid meltdown. It
would not be surprising if the amount of diesel on hand is low, and
the ability to obtain more or even ask for more could be low in a
Put all the above together and you invoke the butterfly effect...
one example is that crime will increase, due to looting.
To keep the
peace, looters would need to be arrested and jailed. But to operate
jails with no electricity becomes problematic - no video
surveillance, difficulties in providing food and water and so on -
which means a lot more police need to be deputized, removing
able-bodied men from other useful tasks.
A police chief might decide
that looting is a hanging offence...
Why Are Power Grids Vulnerable?
Scientific American explains it
Large transformers are electrically
grounded to Earth and thus susceptible to damage caused by
geomagnetically induced directcurrent (DC).
The DC flows up the
transformer ground wires and can lead to temperature spikes of
200 degrees Celsius or higher in the transformer windings,
causing coolant to vaporize and
literally frying the
transformer. Even if transformers avoid this fate, the
induced current can cause their magnetic cores to saturate
during one half of the alternating-current power cycle,
distorting the 50- or 60-hertz waveforms.
Some of the power is
diverted to frequencies that electrical equipment cannot filter
out. Instead of humming at a pure pitch, transformers would
begin to chatter and screech.
Because a magnetic storm affects
transformers all over the country, the condition can rapidly
escalate to a network-wide collapse of voltage regulation.
Grids operate so close to the margin of failure that it
would not take much to push them over.
studies by John G. Kappenman of Metatech Corporation, the
magnetic storm of May 15, 1921, would have caused a blackout
affecting half of North America had it happened today.
much larger storm, like that of 1859, could bring down the
Other industrial countries are also
vulnerable, but North America faces greater danger because ofits
proximity to the north magnetic pole. Because of the physical
damage to transformers, full recovery and replacement of damaged
components might take weeks or even months.
to Congress in 2003 that,
“the ability to provide meaningful
emergency aid and response to an impacted population that may be
in excess of 100 million people will be a difficult challenge.”
The U.S. Congress has voted against
providing funding that would harden the power grid and eliminate the
possibility of a massive failure. It could be the worst decision
they ever made. Other power grids that are reasonably close to the
poles, such as Europe, Russia, Australia, Argentina and South Africa
are also at risk.
What Are The Odds?
Scientists guesstimate that a solar
storm with the magnitude of the Carrington Event will only happen
once every 500 years (based on nitrates found in ice cores
representing the last 450 years).
Storms with half its intensity
should hit every 50 years or so.
The last one occurred on November
13, 1960, and led to global geomagnetic disturbances and radio
outages. The next is due now, at a time when satellites are
substantially more important, and power grids are more vulnerable.
Larger storms than the Carrington Event will also happen, although
we don't know how frequently.
has shown that a storm 1000 times as strong is possible.
Heart Attacks and Strokes
have shown that during solar storms the frequency of hospital
admissions for heart attacks and strokes is roughly double that of
quiet solar periods.
Magnetic pulses are thought to be the cause.
Geomagnetic storms have also been linked to depression, enhanced
anxiety, sleep disturbances, altered moods and psychiatric
admissions (up 36%).
Presumably there would be far greater increases
during a storm like the Carrington Event.
Are We Prepared?
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center
provides daily space weather reports (their data appears at
SpaceWeather.com) to businesses and government agencies.
budget is a mere $6 million. It does provide advance warnings so
that businesses can take precautionary measures, but there is a
great deal of variability between their predictions and the actual
damage that can occur. And with a Carrington-type event, the warning
provides a mere 10-minute window in which to act.
When warning us about incoming geomagnetic storms, the NOAA's only
source of data is the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite.
It was launched in 1997, and according the the U.S. National Academy
of Sciences in 2009, it is "well beyond its planned operational
I take this to mean it could fail any time, and there is no
backup satellite! And all current safety measures become redundant -
we won't be able to remove vulnerable equipment from the grid before
it is too late.
“ACE is a single point of failure and it’s old,”
said William Murtagh, program coordinator for NOAA’s Space
Weather Prediction Center.
“Every time I have a space weather storm
I cringe a little bit that our very own space weather satellite
doesn’t succumb to the storms I’m relying on it to help forecast.”
Power grids are prepared to some degree.
The Hydro Quebec blackout
of 1989 was due to circuit breakers shutting down the system before
the flare could fry transformers. It is not known how dependable
such safety systems are, for they have not been sufficiently put to
the test. And of course human error is easily possible. The decision
of when and how to shut down an electrical system might come down to
one or two individuals.
They might delay the shut-down too long, or
they might think their jobs were at risk if they mistakenly switched
off power to entire cities. The devastating Queensland floods of
2011 were the result of a similar type of human error - and they had
days to make their decisions, not ten minutes.
Several million Preppers are prepared for this and various other
That leaves hundreds of millions of Americans who are
not prepared, as well as governments and infrastructures that have
not made provisions for long-term losses of electricity.
Official Vulnerability Estimate
The following quote is from
Severe Space Weather Events, a report commissioned by the
National Research Council.
Severe space weather has the
potential to pose serious threats to the future North American
electric power grid. Recently, Metatech Corporation carried out
a study under the auspices of the Electromagnetic Pulse
Commission and also for the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA) to examine the potential impacts of severe geomagnetic
storm events on the U.S. electric power grid.
indicate that severe geomagnetic storms pose a risk for
long-term outages to major portions of the North American grid.
John Kappenman remarked that the analysis shows,
“not only the
potential for large-scale blackouts but, more troubling,...
the potential for permanent damage that could lead to
extraordinarily long restoration times.”
While a severe storm is
a low-frequency-of-occurrence event, it has the potential for
long-duration catastrophic impacts to the power grid and its
Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures,
with, for example, potable water distribution affected within
several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in about
12-24 hours; and immediate or eventual loss of heating/air
conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation,
fuel resupply, and so on.
Kappenman stated that the effects on
these interdependent infrastructures could persist for multiple
years, with a potential for significant societal impacts and
with economic costs that could be measurable in the
several-trillion dollars-per-year range.
...The least understood aspect of this threat is the permanent
damage to power grid assets and how that will impede the
restoration process. Transformer damage is the most likely
outcome, although other key assets on the grid are also at risk.
In particular, transformers experience excessive levels of
internal heating brought on by stray flux when GICs cause a
transformer’s magnetic core to saturate and to spill flux
outside the normal core steel magnetic circuit.
that previous well-documented cases have involved heating
failures that caused melting and burn-through of large-amperage
copper windings and leads in these transformers.
apparatus generally cannot be repaired in the field, and if
damaged in this manner, they need to be replaced with new units,
which have manufacture lead times of 12 months or more.
...In summary, present U.S. grid operational procedures are
based largely on limited experience, generally do not reduce GIC
flows, and are unlikely to be adequate for historically large
Historically large storms have a potential
to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of
unprecedented proportions, long-term blackouts, and lengthy
restoration times, and chronic shortages for multiple years are
As Kappenman summed up,
“An event that could
incapacitate the network for a long time could be one of the
largest natural disasters that we could face.”
Finally, I can recommend this Feb
article from the IEEE, which concludes,
"If we do nothing -
if we stand by and wait for politicians to appreciate the risks and
act on them - we may witness one of the worst catastrophes of all