Solar storms and their potential to create electronic chaos
What you will learn:
- History of solar events and their disruptive effects.
- How Class X flares can wreak havoc on satellites.
- The impact on the electricity network and possible remedies.
Hollywood would have us believe that we could avert a global solar flare catastrophe by using technology (solar attack) or even harnessing energy from CMEs (coronal mass ejections) through manipulation of the Earth’s magnetic field (Cat . 8). Whatever the movie, its unlikely fictional technology would save us from disaster in the event that a massive solar flare hit the earth. But this begs the question: could humanity survive such an event?
Solar flares are intense flares of electromagnetic radiation in the solar atmosphere, which are often followed by CME and solar particle events (proton acceleration). They also produce an immense amount of energy, usually 1020 joules, with significant activity pushing this number up to 1025 joules. Their frequency also varies over the course of the 11-year solar cycle, producing several per day during its maximum, to less than once a week during its minimum.
These flares are categorized by alphabetical letters and number suffixes, which range from A (weakest) to X (strongest), along with a peak amplitude flux in watts per square meter (W / m2). For example, an X2 flare is twice as powerful as an X1 flare; an X3 flare is three times more powerful than an X1, but only 50% more powerful than an X2.
Solar winds carry these charged particles through the solar system, and when they strike Earth, they produce these fantastic aurora light shows as they transfer their energy into the magnetosphere. While these light shows are an incredible sight, these CMEs can wreak havoc on space platforms and earth systems as well. These pose a minor physical threat to those of us on the ground, but astronauts could be exposed to lethal amounts of radiation. The high-energy particles could damage chromosomes as they pass through living cells, leading to cancer and other health problems.
From satellite disruption to power grid failure
They can also damage navigation, communications and other satellites, rendering them unusable and even altering their orbits. Most low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites need a routine boost to higher orbits to maintain flight; otherwise, they will burn in the atmosphere. The destruction of Skylab in 1979 was in part due to higher than expected solar activity, causing the craft to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere prematurely.
Satellite disruptions can impact us here on earth in the form of loss of communication and navigation, affecting flights and the GPS systems that people rely on daily. While such issues can be categorized as more of a drawback, they can be quickly alleviated by shifting workloads to other satellites that have not been affected. On the other hand, the power grid disruption could be catastrophic and last for weeks or months.
The most powerful solar flare ever observed occurred in September 1859 and was known as the Carrington event. It was visible to the naked eye, produced auroras as far south as Cuba and the Hawaiian Islands, and set fire to telegraph wires, cutting off communications. The eruption left a mark in the ice of Greenland in the form of nitrates and beryllium-10, allowing scientists to measure its strength.
Reconstruction of the effects of the 1859 eruption has been compared to others documented over the past 150 years and has been estimated to be around X50, the highest ever reported. By comparison, the largest measured in modern times occurred in November 2003 and was estimated to be around X45, but it was not on a path that contacted Earth.
In 1972, an X20-class solar flare produced a geomagnetic and proton storm that disrupted power and communications networks, destroyed a satellite, and detonated numerous US Navy magnetic sea mines in northern Vietnamese waters. Also in 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused the collapse of the Quebec hydroelectric dam as equipment protection relays tripped, leaving 9 million people without electricity. Most of these storms, with the exception of the Carrington event, were localized, meaning they only affected one geographic location. But could he leave an entire nation in darkness?
Identifying Network Problems
We rely on the electricity grid for everything: to power our homes, our trips, charge our mobile devices and supply our grocery stores with fresh food. Hospitals depend on them for intensive care, airports for shipping, and oil refineries for fuel. Without the network, society would sink into chaos. Massive solar flares like the one in 1859 will recur, it’s only a matter of time. But don’t head to those doomsday bunkers just yet.
A 2020 US Geological Survey (USGS) study shows that critical areas of the Midwest and East Coast of the United States are more vulnerable to geomagnetic activity than others. While these areas are home to millions of people, a few preventative measures, such as storing transformers and other electrical equipment, could help keep their lights on and their groceries in their refrigerators.
According to the study, geology can help mitigate the effects of a magnetic storm on high-voltage power lines. Rocks, such as sedimentary formations, are relatively electrically conductive, which means they are more efficient at dissipating electric fields induced by storms. This means that regions with these sedimentary rocks are more resistant to such storms. Fortunately, this is most of the United States
Some areas of the Midwest and East Coast lack the sedimentary rocks needed to dissipate magnetic fields, increasing vulnerability to the effects and geomagnetic disturbances of solar flares. The worst-case scenario said those areas would be without power for weeks until replacement transformers can be produced and delivered, according to the report.
It is important to note that in 2015, eight US electric utilities created a stock of transformers accessible in case of emergency, especially in the event of geomagnetic storms and terrorist attacks. In March 2019, President Trump called on agencies to strengthen the network to protect against electromagnetic pulses to further strengthen the network.
In the same month, NOAA (National Agency for Oceans and Atmosphere) released a national space weather strategy and action plan that supports three main goals: improving critical infrastructure and assets, improving the accuracy and timing of space weather forecasts; and establishing procedures for responding to and recovering from space weather events.
It is well known to scientists that another major solar flare will impact power grids around the world. The good news is that most electric utilities and government agencies have braced for yet another Carrington event, identifying their respective vulnerabilities on the grid and working to keep them safe and functioning.
Want to see what we engineers could do during a catastrophic post-solar event? The film Bullfinch with Tom Hanks paints a fairly realistic picture of such a scenario. I would say you can get the gist of the story in the first trimester or so. Critically, the film’s goal afterwards was somewhat repulsive and boring. Ultimately leaving this viewer depressed at the end of the story and my new amount of time wasted. A precise score, to two decimal places, of 2.31 out of 5.00.