Saturday, February 26, 2011

Solar Superstorm and the North American Power Grid: A Heads-Up

" 'Monster' Solar Storm Erupts On the Sun"
Tariq Malik, (February 26, 2011)

"The sun unleashed a powerful flare Thursday (Feb.24) that - while not the strongest solar storm ever seen - let loose a massive wave of magnetic plasma in a dazzling display.

"The solar flare kicked up a huge, twisting tendril of plasma that scientists call a solar prominence. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the flare in an eye-catching video, with mission scientists calling the eruption a 'monster prominence.'

" 'Some of the material blew out into space and other portions fell back to the surface,' NASA scientists wrote in a statement released Friday (Feb. 25)..."

There's even a video, complete with mood music:

"Sun Whips Out Massive Flare"
video, 1:05

So, scientists are interested in something that folks can't see without special equipment. They call it a 'monster prominence,' and have cool video: but really, what's the big deal?

After another one of these big flares, folks might see auroral displays. Big ones. Spectacular. Even near Earth's equator. That's happened before, back in 1859.

If you're living in a place like New York City or Seattle, you probably don't see auroras all that much. City lights drown them out, along with all but the brightest stars.

During the coming cycle of maximum solar activity, you'd stand a chance of seeing the show even in the heart of Manhattan: weather permitting. There's a chance that the power grid in your part of the world would have been knocked offline. And would stay that way for months. Maybe a year.

Or, maybe not. Y2K demonstrated, in the Lemming's opinion, how technical issues can be dealt with - before they become crises. When legacy software changed the year from 99 to 00, a few folks were affected: but the worst-case scenario didn't happen. I've discussed Y2K before. (April 22, 2010)

Unlike some of the weirder assertions the Lemming has run across, warnings that a major solar flare could affect the power grid make sense. Something very much like what's coming has happened before.

Solar Flares: 2011 isn't 1859

Back to that article:

"...Strong solar flares aimed at Earth can disrupt satellites and power grids, as well as pose a hazard to astronauts on spacecraft. They can also spark dazzling shows of the northern lights, or aurora borealis.

"The threat of solar flares to satellites and infrastructure has been gaining notice among decision makers lately. Last week, Jane Lubchenco – the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – told a gathering of scientists that the United States must take steps to protect assets from potentially dangerous space weather events...."

That still doesn't sound too serious. Words like "satellites" and "infrastructure" might make it seem like a major solar flare would be a concern to a few scientists and techno-nerds, but not to many other folks.

Since folks like Lubchenco are starting to get the word out that weather in the Solar system affects what we do on Earth, maybe the next really big flare won't do all that much damage.

On the other hand: there's what happened in 1859.

You won't find any mention of the Great Blackout of 1859, because we didn't have a continent-spanning power grid then.

There were telegraph lines, though.

"The Perfect Solar Superstorm"
Sky and Telescope p. 29 (February 2011)

"...Humanity was just beginning to develop a dependence on high-tech systems in 1859. The telegraph was the technological wonder of its day. There were no high-power electrical lines crisscrossing the continents, nor were there sensitive satellites orbiting Earth. There certainly was not yet a dependence on instantaneous communication and remote sensing of Earth's surface. At present, when the sun is ramping up its activity in Solar Cycle 24, we need to ask ourselves: What would happen to our 21st-century world if a solar storm as severe as those in 1859 were to strike today?

"The Sun-Earth Connection

"The 1859 auroras were the visible manifestation of two intense magnetic storms that occurred near the peak of the 10th sunspot cycle. On September 1st, the day before the onset of the second storm, British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington observed an outburst of 'two patches of intensely bright and white light' from a large group of sunspots near the center of the Sun's disk. The outburst lasted 5 minutes and was also observed by Richard Hodgson from his home observatory near London. Carrington noted that the solar outburst was followed the next day by a geomagnetic storm, but he cautioned against inferring a causal connection between the two events.

"Contemporary observers such as American astronomer Daniel Kirkwood recognized the dazzling auroral displays, magnetic disturbances, and telegraph disruptions between August 28 and September 4, 1859 as spectacular manifestations of a 'mysterious connection between the solar spots and terrestrial magnetism.' Several scientists had proposed such a connection earlier in the decade based on the regular observed correspondence between changes in Earth's magnetic field and the number of sunspots. By the mid-1860s, Hermann Fritz in Zürich and Elias Loomis at Yale University would furnish convincing evidence of a link between auroras and the sunspot cycle...."

There's quite a bit more in the article, like the discovery of coronal mass ejections in the 1970s. That gave researchers the link between what happens on the sun, and electromagnetic phenomena here on - and near - Earth.

Quite a bit later, on page 33, there's an explanation for why a Solar flare could do bad things to electrical power systems here on Earth. It has to do with a five-dollar phrase, electromagnetic induction. Basically, moving stuff that can conduct electricity through a magnetic field sets up a current in the stuff. Moving a magnetic field around stuff that conducts electricity does the same thing.

It's the physics behind our AC and DC generators.

Big Solar Flare: How Bad Could That Be?

Here's what a King-Kong-Size Solar flare could do, when its effects hit Earth's magnetic field:

"...Auroral currents from space weather induce powerful, fluctuating direct currents (DC) in electrical power grids. These currents flow through large extra high-voltage transformers and can cause the transformers to saturate and overheat. This saturation can be severe enough to cause network-wide voltage-regulation problems, which can lead to widespread blackouts. The most intense current flows can burn out transformers in a matter of minutes...."

Let's say that major solar storm comes, and sets off something like the 1989 Québec blackout. Except this time the disruption isn't contained. Look closely at that graphic, and you'll see a gray area that doesn't cover the entire United States, east of the Mississippi, and another that hardly affects California at all, apart from a little slice of the northern counties. Washington state, Oregon, and Idaho are affected, though: plus parts of Montana, Canada, and a few other places.

Those gray areas are where extra high-voltage (EHV) transmission lines and major power substations would convert magnetic energy from a Solar storm into electricity, overloading EHV transformers. Overloading and - quite likely - damaging the things permanently.

EHV transformers aren't the sort of thing they carry in hardware stores, and we aren't set up to manufacture new ones all that fast: there just hasn't been demand for them. (Sky and Telescope, p. 34 (February 2011))

Only a little over 130,000,000 people live in those gray areas. But if the sort of catastrophic failure of the power grid that Sky and Telescope discuss happened, they could be without power for months. Maybe a year.

I don't think the folks living in Seattle, Spokane, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York City, and all the rest, would be too happy about being left in the dark. Particularly if it's a cold winter.

Panic? Hardly

If you follow this blog, you've probably caught on that the Lemming doesn't take most 'and we're all gonna die' pronouncements all that seriously:
On the other hand, unpleasant things have happened from time to time: like the Krakatoa eruption and Mt. St. Helens (June 3, 2010); The 2010 hurricane in Haiti (November 6, 2010); and those are just in the last few centuries.

Prepare? Sounds Like a Plan

Large-scale power outages in North America have happened before. The more notable ones include:
Right now, with what looks to be a strong Solar maximum on its way, the odds are that the next major blackout will be caused, at least in part, by a major solar flare.

Even if we're lucky during this cycle, there's no reason to assume that the Sun will stop being a mildly variable star. Not any time soon, at least. It's the old 'ounce of prevention' thing.

Back when Y2K was coming, folks with computers and good sense saw to it that older software wouldn't raise havoc by calculating years based on the last two digits, instead of all four. The Lemming thinks the same principle applies now: folks who look after power supplies know - or should know - what's coming, and are probably working out ways to keep a solar-generated power surge from turning out the lights.

Either that, or there will be a whole lot of folks learning why they need electricity in the next few years.

In the Lemming's opinion.

Related posts:

No comments:

Unique, innovative candles

Visit us online:
Spiral Light CandleFind a Retailer
Spiral Light Candle online store

Pinterest: From the Man Behind the Lemming

Top 10 Most-Viewed Posts

Today's News! Some of it, anyway

Actually, some of yesterday's news may be here. Or maybe last week's.
The software and science stuff might still be interesting, though. Or not.
The Lemming thinks it's interesting: Your experience may vary.
("Following" list moved here, after Blogger changed formats)

Who Follows the Lemming?


Family Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory