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Time to be afraid - preparing for the next big solar storm

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The probability of a solar storm striking Earth in the next decade with enough force to do serious damage to electricity networks could be as high as 12%, according to solar scientists.

One such storm erupted from the surface of the sun two years ago, on July 23, 2012. If it had been directed at this planet, it would have produced the worst geomagnetic storm in more than four centuries and caused extensive power problems.

Fortunately, on this occasion, the eruption pointed away from Earth and the storm blasted safely out into space.

But if it had occurred just a week earlier, when the site was pointed directly at our planet, billions of tons of highly charged particles would have raced towards Earth's magnetic field at a speed of 2,500 km per second.

The result would have been a spectacular display of the northern lights (aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis) visible as far as the equator, turning the night sky as bright as daytime.

But it could also have fried the world's electricity grids and left hundreds of millions of customers without power for months or even years.

In the event of an eruption directed at Earth, politicians and power grid operators would have just a few hours from the first signs until the full fury of the storm hit to protect the electrical systems on which modern life depends.

"The July 2012 solar storm was a shot across the bows for policymakers and space weather professionals," U.S. solar researchers warned in the journal Space Weather ("A major solar eruptive event in July 2012: defining extreme space weather scenarios", October 2013).

"Our advanced technological society was very fortunate, indeed, that the solar storm did not occur just a week or so earlier. Had the storm occurred in mid-July the Earth would have been directly targeted ... and an unprecedentedly large space weather event would have resulted."

"There is a legitimate question of whether our society would still be picking up the pieces," they concluded.

Scientists and power grid operators remain divided over how much damage the power grid would suffer in a severe solar storm aimed directly at Earth.

A moderately severe geomagnetic storm aimed at the United States could cut power to 130 million people and damage more than 350 high-voltage transformers, which would take months to replace, according to a report published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2008.

A really severe storm could inflict damage and disruption estimated at between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina, with a full recovery time between four and 10 years, the academy wrote ("Severe space weather events: understanding societal and economic impacts", 2008).

"The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel resupply and so on," according to a study funded by the U.S. government.

Older electrical transformers would be at particular risk of being damaged by the enormous electrical currents induced in the power grid by a severe storm.

Transformers cannot just be ordered from a store. Spare units are in limited supply. Ordinarily, it takes up to 15 months to order, manufacture, install and test a high-voltage transformer - even longer for some specialised equipment.

"The need to suddenly replace a large number of them has not been previously contemplated," the U.S. government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory warned in 2010 ("Geomagnetic storms and their impacts on the U.S. power grid", January 2010).

The problem is not just manufacturing. High-voltage transformers are exceptionally large and heavy, so they have to move slowly by ship, road and rail, and cannot be air freighted. Moving one even a few kilometers requires weeks of planning.

"It may take one week to move a 250,000-volt transformer a short distance in major metropolitan areas," Oak Ridge explained. "Even the distance of a few miles may take an entire weekend, as a number of traffic lights have to be removed and reinstated as the load is moved at snail's pace in special trailers and the route taken has to be fully surveyed for load-bearing capability by civil engineers."

Grid operators are more sanguine about the risks. Severe geomagnetic storms are more likely to cause blackouts and short-term power loss, rather than permanent damage, according to a report prepared by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) on behalf of the industry ("Effects of geomagnetic disturbances on the bulk power system", February 2012).

NERC thinks a severe storm would heat up a fully loaded transformer to around 120 degrees Celsius for roughly four minutes, well below the 200-degree design threshold used for modern equipment. A really severe storm could push temperatures over 200 degrees for 14 minutes, potentially causing failures, but is unprecedented in modern times, according to NERC.

Nonetheless, the industry has established a special working group on mitigating the effects. And in May 2013, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission formally directed NERC to develop reliability standards to help protect the U.S. grid from solar storms ("FERC Order 779: Reliability standards for geomagnetic disturbances", May 16, 2013).

NERC characterises severe geomagnetic storms as "high impact, low frequency" (HILF) risks. High impact, low frequency risks are particularly hard to manage because policymakers must decide how much money to spend on reducing a risk that would be catastrophic but seems remote.

However, recent research suggests the probability of a severe storm hitting Earth may be much higher than NERC assumed.

The worst solar storm on record occurred on Sept 1, 1859, and was observed by an amateur astronomer in England called Richard Carrington, after whom the Carrington Event is named.

A large solar flare erupted from the surface of the Sun lasting for around five minutes. At the same time, a huge mass of highly charged particles, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), was flung towards Earth at speeds up to 2,000 km per second, according to reconstructions by modern solar scientists.

The first particles reached Earth within an hour and the storm peaked around 17 hours and 40 minutes after the flare was observed.

The Carrington Event occurred in a largely pre-electrical age, so the impact was limited. But it was strong enough to damage severely the new telegraph systems installed in North America and Europe.

The next big solar storm, reported in May 1921, brought the U.S. telegraph service to a halt between the East Coast and the Mississippi River, blowing fuses and burning some operators.

In March 1989, a severe geomagnetic storm blacked out Quebec's power grid in less than two minutes - the worst impact to date.

In October and November 2003, the so-called Halloween storms caused isolated transformer failures in North America and Europe.

Measuring the severity of a storm is tricky because it depends on so many factors, including the size of the flare, the scale of coronal mass ejection, the speed at which it travels from the Sun to Earth, magnetic flux, time of day, and location of the direct hit.

But one common summary statistic used by solar researchers is called "disturbance-storm time", or Dst for short.

The Dst index measures how hard Earth's magnetic field shakes when a storm hits, according to NASA ("Near miss: the solar superstorm of July 2012").

Dst is measured in nano-Teslas (nT). The more negative Dst becomes, the worse the storm.

The Carrington Event in 1859 is estimated to have had a Dst index of around -850 nT. The Quebec storm in 1989 clocked in at -589 nT and the 1921 storm was probably on a similar scale.

What frightened the solar scientists was that the July 2012 storm would have had a Dst index of up to -1,200 nT if it had struck Earth, making it much worse than the Carrington Event.

Scientists are able to analyse the July 2012 storm in detail because although it was angled away from Earth it made a direct hit on a solar observation satellite, STEREO-A, which is specially hardened to withstand extreme magnetic disturbances.

But had it hit Earth, it would have done severe damage to power grids and satellite communications.

Severe solar storms occur much more often than previously thought.

Like many natural phenomena, the frequency with which solar storms take place scales as an inverse power of the severity of the event. But the sheer number of large storms over the last 150 years suggests the Carrington Event is unlikely to be an isolated occurrence.

Calculations by solar scientist Pete Riley, at Predictive Science Inc, suggest the probability of a solar storm of at least the power of the Carrington Event hitting Earth in the next 10 years is around 12% ("On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events", February 2012).

While not high, a 12% probability hardly qualifies as a "low-frequency" or remote-probability event.

So it is essential that the power industry and policymakers better understand how it would impact vulnerable systems (including the grid, global positioning system, radio and television communications, satellites and aircraft), harden them where possible, and plan how to cope with the aftermath of a big storm.

Once a large flare is detected, the industry and policymakers would have just an hour or so to put the grid and other systems into the safest possible operating mode before the storm arrives.

Before the next major storm arrives, it is essential to understand which transformers and other equipment are most at risk.

Policymakers must consider whether to replace, redesign or otherwise harden the most at-risk equipment to withstand the impact.

It is also essential to identify how the grid (and other systems) could be rendered as safe as possible before the storm strikes.

Readying the grid could involve turning the power to customers down or off to reduce the loading on critical transformers and make them less vulnerable to overheating.

If power and communications systems are likely to be disrupted, businesses, households and government agencies will need to be informed quickly.

And once the storm has passed, grid operators and policymakers must have a plan for damage repairs.

Grid managers already plan how to re-energise the grid after large-scale blackouts such as the one that hit the northeast United States and neighboring parts of Canada in August 2003.

The process is known as a "black start" and involves a careful sequence of steps to restart power plants, re-energise power lines and transformers, and gradually restore supplies.

But a severe solar storm might also cause more permanent damage, so the industry needs to supplement its black start procedure with a plan for handling multiple transformer outages.

Between 1996 and 2010, the SOHO satellite recorded almost 15,000 coronal mass ejections. It is only a matter of time before one of them is aimed at Earth and is of the same magnitude as Carrington, or worse.

Given the frequency of large solar storms, most people reading this article will witness at least one.

And given society's increasing dependence on electricity and electromagnetic communications, storms could do much more damage in future, just one way in which new vulnerabilities are emerging in high-tech economies.

The biggest threat is probably in emerging markets, especially middle-income countries, where the combination of widespread electrification and electronic communications coupled with outdated and overloaded equipment makes them especially vulnerable.

But even in the most advanced economies, a severe solar storm could leave homes and businesses without power for months. Proper risk management and preparation are therefore essential.

We cannot stop a big solar storm arriving, but we can prepare and try to avoid its worst effects.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014.

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

18 Comments
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... and this of course begs the question, what would one of these storms do to the highly sensitive and almost completely automated processes required to keep a nuclear power plant from going critical?

As I understand the article it wouldn't stop the nuclear reaction, it would merely disable all the electrical systems that stop the plant from becoming a nuclear disaster, i.e. the cooling pumps would shut down, the motors that retract the fuel rods would shut down, the monitoring equipment would be fried, etc.

... but nuclear power is SAFE they keep telling us...

1 ( +3 / -2 )

@Frungy: As I understand it, most modern Nuclear plants have back-up systems and other countermeasures in place in the event of a Solar Storm, a decision that came about after the '89 blackout. Your very concerns were addressed, and reactors developed since then had new installations made. I believe several older reactors were also updated with these countermeasures. I've also heard that many reactors have a manual mechanical fuel rod retraction system.

An interesting article. How we will cope should a solar storm hit will fall down to our reaction time more than anything else. Governments aren't that big on providing funds to prepare for an unlikely event. Politicians by and large seem too short sighted for that. As long as the power grid managers react quickly to reduce the load on transformers, we should come out of the storm just fine, but then again, they can only react quickly if they know a storm is coming, which falls under the responsibility of those monitoring solar activity. So ultimately, it is on their shoulders that the burden of protecting the world's power supply rests. If they make a mistake, or respond too slowly, the grid managers won't be able to respond quickly enough, and the damage will be high, even catastrophic.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Fox Sora WintersJul. 30, 2014 - 10:53AM JST @Frungy: As I understand it, most modern Nuclear plants have back-up systems and other countermeasures in place in the event of a Solar Storm, a decision that came about after the '89 blackout. Your very concerns were addressed, and reactors developed since then had new installations made. I believe several older reactors were also updated with these countermeasures. I've also heard that many reactors have a manual mechanical fuel rod retraction system.

Thank you for your response.

However it appears that Japanese nuclear power companies may not have installed these safeguards in their older plants (more than half the plants in Japan were built before the 1989 blackout). Certainly the Fukushima Daiichi plant didn't have them as the primary generator going out when it was flooded by the tsunami was what caused the crisis.

I guess it all comes back to the central problem of nuclear power in Japan, namely trust. There are safeguards available, but they involve additional expense, and so we have to trust that companies will install these safeguards. Until Fukushima Daiichi we never really looked too closely, but now we have compelling and irrefutable proof that not only were adequate safeguards not installed, but the picture that emerged after the disaster was that even routine maintenance was not being done adequately, and that companies were cutting corners to maximise profits on nuclear power plants that were running well past their safe operating dates.

Personally I think that trust is something one earns back after a disaster through openness and transparency, but the nuclear power industry seems to be hell-bent on keeping everything secret, pushing to re-open plants and THEN do then maintenance and upgrades LATER (at some unspecified date), and all without the public's consent or agreement.

Frankly I don't think that the nuclear power plants in Japan have these safeguards installed, and that we have every reason to believe that (like adequate tsunami protection) the companies have installed the bare minimum to meet legislated standards, which does not include solar surge protection.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Fox Sora WintersJul. 30, 2014 - 10:53AM JST @Frungy: As I understand it, most modern Nuclear plants have back-up systems and other countermeasures in place in the event of a Solar Storm, a decision that came about after the '89 blackout. Your very concerns were addressed, and reactors developed since then had new installations made. I believe several older reactors were also updated with these countermeasures. I've also heard that many reactors have a manual mechanical fuel rod retraction system.

Thank you for your response.

However it appears that Japanese nuclear power companies may not have installed these safeguards in their older plants (more than half the plants in Japan were built before the 1989 blackout). Certainly the Fukushima Daiichi plant didn't have them as the primary generator going out when it was flooded by the tsunami was what caused the crisis.

I guess it all comes back to the central problem of nuclear power in Japan, namely trust. There are safeguards available, but they involve additional expense, and so we have to trust that companies will install these safeguards. Until Fukushima Daiichi we never really looked too closely, but now we have compelling and irrefutable proof that not only were adequate safeguards not installed, but the picture that emerged after the disaster was that even routine maintenance was not being done adequately, and that companies were cutting corners to maximise profits on nuclear power plants that were running well past their safe operating dates.

Personally I think that trust is something one earns back after a disaster through openness and transparency, but the nuclear power industry seems to be hell-bent on keeping everything secret, pushing to re-open plants and THEN do then maintenance and upgrades LATER (at some unspecified date), and all without the public's consent or agreement.

Frankly I don't think that the nuclear power plants in Japan have these safeguards installed, and that we have every reason to believe that (like adequate tsunami protection) the companies have installed the bare minimum to meet legislated standards, which does not include solar surge protection.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Fox Sora WintersJul. 30, 2014 - 10:53AM JST @Frungy: As I understand it, most modern Nuclear plants have back-up systems and other countermeasures in place in the event of a Solar Storm, a decision that came about after the '89 blackout. Your very concerns were addressed, and reactors developed since then had new installations made. I believe several older reactors were also updated with these countermeasures. I've also heard that many reactors have a manual mechanical fuel rod retraction system.

Thank you for your response.

However it appears that Japanese nuclear power companies may not have installed these safeguards in their older plants (more than half the plants in Japan were built before the 1989 blackout). Certainly the Fukushima Daiichi plant didn't have them as the primary generator going out when it was flooded by the tsunami was what caused the crisis.

I guess it all comes back to the central problem of nuclear power in Japan, namely trust. There are safeguards available, but they involve additional expense, and so we have to trust that companies will install these safeguards. Until Fukushima Daiichi we never really looked too closely, but now we have compelling and irrefutable proof that not only were adequate safeguards not installed, but the picture that emerged after the disaster was that even routine maintenance was not being done adequately, and that companies were cutting corners to maximise profits on nuclear power plants that were running well past their safe operating dates.

Personally I think that trust is something one earns back after a disaster through openness and transparency, but the nuclear power industry seems to be hell-bent on keeping everything secret, pushing to re-open plants and THEN do then maintenance and upgrades LATER (at some unspecified date), and all without the public's consent or agreement.

Frankly I don't think that the nuclear power plants in Japan have these safeguards installed, and that we have every reason to believe that (like adequate tsunami protection) the companies have installed the bare minimum to meet legislated standards, which does not include solar surge protection.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It is nice that they are talking about the grid but what about you house? They are implying that wires will carry current that will heat to 120 -200 degrees C. I don't think the average home wiring will be able to take that. Basically, you home will burn down. Also even with electrical wiring, water pipes will conduct the electricity. So they should at the very least burst. Not sure what would happen to cars. Generally they are a Faraday cage for the most part. No sewer, no water, no power, may have a massive fire, fun times.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

So why not start building replacement transformers right now?

Sure, it'd cost billions, but nothing compared to what four years without power would cost.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Unfortunately, the human race does not have a very good record of preparing for future catastrophes. It may be a good idea to store some extra water and food for future emergencies.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Large liquid-filled power transformers are designed to withstand a 220C temperature rise, with a safety factor far above that. That's rise above ambient. Smaller dry types up to about 5,000 KVA are at least 150C temperature rise. So, the conditions stated in the article would not be enough to cause catastrophic damage to the transformers or high voltage switchgear in the grid. Smaller, household stuff could be toast though.

I think transmission lines would be more at risk.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Riiiiight.

Sure would make for a nice Hollywood thriller but the Earth is like a grain of salt orbiting a basketball a few miles away.

The odds of a solar storm hitting the earth are between zero and nil.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

The loss of water would be the worst, assuming you are not so close to an exploding nuke plant you die from the explosion or radioactivity.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The way politicians work things out in this world ,hustling money instead of doing what they've been elected to do I guess i'll just take a seat, bend over & kiss my ass goodbye! but at least i'll be prepared!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I think Burning Bush is exaggerating a little but makes a very good point. It is easy to forget how insignificant we are.

1) Basketball Circumference=75cm divide pi = .23cm = 0.23 m. Grain of salt = 1 millimetre or .001 m : Ratio 230 2) Diameter of Sun 1,391,684,000 m. Diameter of Earth 12,742,000 m: Ratio109

The first ratio is about twice the second so the Earth is twice the diameter or about four grains of salt (2mm by 2mm), or perhaps a grain of rock salt, if the Sun is a basket ball. Using the basketball to sun diameter ratio, the distance of the Sun to the earth of 149,600,000,000 meters is about 25 metres or about the length of a basketball pitch (28m). (sizes according to Google)

So I think we are like a grain of rock salt rotating a basketball, the length of a basketball pitch away.

The basketball would need to explode pretty violently in the right direction to effect the rock salt.

I guess this is why solar flares only cause significant "incidents" -- according to the article -- every 60 to 70 years (1921-1859 =62. 1989-1921 =68). Again, assuming solar flares to be random, rather than cyclic, and since the gamblers fallacy is a fallacy, there is no reason to think that now is the "time to be afraid." Even if they were cyclic, then I think that the time to be afraid would be in the 2050s.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Thanks for the calculations @timtak. You just blew my mind. Really puts things into perspective.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

timtakJul. 31, 2014 - 10:25AM JST The basketball would need to explode pretty violently in the right direction to effect the rock salt.

Solar flare occur, on average, a couple of times a day. Yes, the chances of us getting hit by any SINGLE solar flare are pretty small, but over a decade the odds of us getting hit become a certainty. But not every solar flare is a big one, so we're hit by a lot of smaller flares, but over 5 or 10 decades (50~100 years) again the odds of us being hit by a major flare rise until it is a near certainty.

I guess this is why solar flares only cause significant "incidents" -- according to the article -- every 60 to 70 years (1921-1859 =62. 1989-1921 =68). Again, assuming solar flares to be random, rather than cyclic, and since the gamblers fallacy is a fallacy, there is no reason to think that now is the "time to be afraid." Even if they were cyclic, then I think that the time to be afraid would be in the 2050s.

With all due respect Timtak, I think you're missing the point.

We've only had country-wide power grids for a little over a century, and now some power grids are international. This means that the impact of a single solar flare isn't restricted to a single area anymore, but may be international. The U.S. power grid, for example, in a risk analysis in 2005, found that if the national grid went down it couldn't be restarted for several months, if at all, because the components are so outdated that they're okay for everyday loads, but couldn't stand the increased loads of a nation-wide restart in most areas.

Our power sources are also MUCH larger, for example if a coal power plant overloads it might burn down and take a few nearby building with it, but if a nuclear power station overloads it can contaminate hundreds of square miles.

Our society as a whole is also far more dependent on electricity than it was even seventy years ago.

The error here isn't gambler's fallacy, because no-one is claiming that a solar surge is MORE likely now. What is being pointed out is that the consequences are more dire because of the changing nature of society and technology. To put this in gambling terms, the odds of losing are the same every day, but the amount we stand to lose is much, much higher.

Simply put, governments need to implement mandatory regulations to protect that national power grids asap, because it would be a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics to claim that these events occur on a regular schedule and so we have time. Everyday it doesn't happen the odds of it happening the next day rise, but it might occur a lot sooner than that.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I haven't been this afraid since SARS.

One such storm erupted from the surface of the sun two years ago, on July 23, 2012.

So the Mayans were almost right.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Everyday it doesn't happen the odds of it happening the next day rise, This sounds like the definitive gambler's fallacy, but I understand your main point - our increasing vulnerability. I wonder about its veracity though. How much has the power grid changed since 1989? The solar flare in 1989 caused a 9 hour power outage in Quebec.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Timtak - I don't think you understand the gambler's fallacy very well. The gambler's fallacy is a fallacy because the gambler is assuming that having lost the last 10 rolls of the rice the next roll is likely to be successful. It is a fallacy because statistics doesn't work for one roll of the dice, the results are random for any one roll.

However when you're dealing with larger data sets, for example a couple of solar flares (rolls of the dice) over several decades (amounting to thousands of rolls of the dice) patterns begin to emerge and one can be more confident of a fair spread of results, some high, most medium, some low.

The result of no single "roll" can be predicted, but one can predict that in a couple of thousand rolls there will be at least one or two extremely unlikely results.

So, no. You're misunderstanding what "gambler's fallacy" really is.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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