Fear Space Weather, Not Climate Change

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., Aug. 23, 2010 — It’s time to stop fretting about climate change and start worrying about space weather.

In an opinion article in the Aug. 15, 2010 New York Times, journalist Lawrence E. Joseph raises the issue of the havoc a major solar storm could have on modern electric power and telecommunications technologies. A large explosion on the Sun, of the magnitude of solar storms that hit the Earth in 1859 and 1921, could black out hundreds of millions of people, fry high-voltage transformers, disrupt global positioning networks and air traffic control, shut off water supplies (most rely on electric pumps to move water from place to place), and cause other serious, long-lasting damage.

Joseph warns, “This isn’t science fiction.” He’s right. A fairly small solar storm in March 1989 clobbered the Hydro-Quebec transmission grid, one of the most robust in the world, blacking out some six million Canadians for nine hours, as well as causing cascading blackouts in the U.S., according to NASA. That may have been merely a harbinger.

Solar activity generally follows an 11-year cycle of calm followed by raging sunspots and solar flares. The current solar “minimum” has been in place for well beyond 11 years, which leads some space scientists to fear that coming out of the minimum will mean a whopper of a maximum. Some modeling done for the National Academy of Sciences two years ago of a big burst on the scale of the 1921 storm found some 350 U.S. transformers at “risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power,” with concomitant problems of water disruption, food and perishable medications lost, sewage disposal halted, fuel supply stopped, and phones down.

Interconnectedness, a goal that most analysts of the electric grid view as a positive, particularly an interconnected smart grid, would probably make the situation worse. The 2008 NAS report – Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts – notes that interconnectedness means “interdependency,” which is “evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power – and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site.”

Admittedly, such a solar event is low probability. But the “consequences of such an event could be very high, as its effects would cascade through other, dependent systems,” according to the academy report. Low-frequency, high-consequence events, says the academy, “present – in terms of their potential broader, collateral impacts – a unique set of problems for public (and private) institutions and governance, different from the problems raised by conventional, expected, and frequently experienced events.”

Journalist Joseph, who specializes in tales of the apocalypse, says that such a solar storm as hit the Earth in 1921 need not be a catastrophe. Grid-level surge suppressors, he says, could protect transformers, giving a substantial level of protection to the grid. He says that some 5,000 transformers in North America are vulnerable. At $50,000 a pop for grid suppressors, a significant level of protection could be had for only $250 million.

Where would that money come from? The U.S. House, says Joseph, passed a provision in the energy bill that would require grid protection measures by utilities, which would then recoup the costs from customers. The House put up $100 million for the measure. It didn’t get out of the Senate, and it appears unlikely that Congress will come up with funding for grid protection this year.

No one is sure when the next big solar storm will hit. Joseph favors 2012. That fits the New Age beliefs of some folk about when the world comes to an end. As noted in Wikipedia, Dec. 21, 2012 “represents the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar. Various astronomical alignments and numerological formulae related to this date have been proposed, but none have been accepted by mainstream scholarship.”

While there is no real science that points particularly to 2012 for the “big one,” it seems as good a target as any for a not-fully-understood physical phenomenon that seems overdue, based on past experience.