When the Sun Goes Bad

In late January, a significant solar storm unleashed enormous amounts of energy into space.  Here on Earth, warnings were issued that the bursts of solar radiation could significantly affect a lot of the things that we 21st Century humans take for granted, such as telecommunications, air travel, and power grid stability.  Alas, in the event, it was mainly a false alarm:  aside from increased aurora borealis displays, there were minimal disruptions to life as we now know it.  And, the world’s attention – diverted for a couple of moments – reverted to more mundane or trivial dramas.

That solar storm turned out to be a non-event, but that doesn’t mean that solar storms are nothing to worry about.  In 1989, a solar flare event plunged most of Quebec into a blackout

For quite awhile, the Earth has been very lucky:  the truly huge solar storms of recent decades flung their energy in a different direction across the universe, missing us.  We haven’t experienced a direct hit by a major solar storm since 1921, which in turn was smaller than the prior big event in 1859.  Of course, in those days, civilization wasn’t very dependent on electricity, telecommunications, and all the things enabled by electronics – so those storms didn’t cause widespread cataclysms.

In the February 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum, John Kappenman’s article “A Perfect Storm of Planetary Proportions” provides a harrowing description of the probable impact of an epic solar storm, 10 times as powerful as the 1989 storm, but of a magnitude that the Earth has experienced many times over the eons.  As Kappenman says, “the bad news is that it’s likely – certain, even – that such a storm will happen again.  And when it does, it will be one of the worst disasters in recorded history.”

The biggest challenge facing us is that the electromagnetic pulses of a major solar storm will induce enormous electromagnetic fields that will fry high-voltage transformers in utility substations over continental-sized areas.  When these transformers explode, few people will actually be injured much less killed, but the grid will go down – and stay down.  Spare transformers of this size aren’t just sitting on the shelf in inventory.  Replacing one or two wouldn’t be a big deal, but replacing hundreds or perhaps thousands of them?  It could take years to get the grid back to its prior condition, and could take months to restore power in some pretty large areas. 

Consider the social chaos caused about an entire state, or a multi-state region, caused by 10 weeks without power.

Kappenman notes that there are technologies that can mitigate if not entirely eliminate this risk by damping or filtering the effects of electromagnetic pulses on transformers.  Yes, this would be another one of those “smart grid” technologies.  But, deployment requires mass-retrofitting of equipment throughout the utility grid, which in turn would be a public infrastructure project of the highest-degree – and there is substantial public apathy towards any additional expenditure on just about anything worthwhile in energy, much less anything that might not be needed for a few years or decades. 

No:  as with so many other challenges, we prefer to just muddle along, keep our fingers crossed, and hope that we can come up with a good response when confronted with a crisis.  Alas, there are very few human-induced crises comparable to that day when the star in the sky that we utterly rely upon for everything decides to give the Earth a big slap upside the head.


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