This image was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 20, 2013, at 11:15 p.m. EDT. It shows a solstice flare and an eruption of solar material shooting through the sun’s atmosphere, called a prominence eruption. The flare was a class M-2.9, which is in the low-moderate range. Shortly thereafter, this same region of the sun sent a coronal mass ejection (CME) out into space.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of cosmic space
Gnaws at our faces – R. M. Rilke, Duino Elegies (trans. Leslie P. Gartner)
IF WE CONSIDER the phenomenon of solar flares, Rilke’s description of how cosmic winds sometimes blow in our faces is surprisingly true. Atmospheric auroras, the merry dancers that illuminate the folklore of all those people familiar with the midnight sun, often reach us here on Earth. In addition to beautiful northern lights visual displays, they can also have a profound geophysical impact on our planet.
The origin of northern lights in the sky is the potent internal forces of our sun. The aurora borealis visits the skies of every Arctic nation. The lights usually circle the globe in an elliptical band centered on the Earth’s magnetic North Pole and beginning 20 degrees or so south. Since the magnetic pole is offset from the geographic pole in the direction of Hudson’s Bay, Canada is prone to more aurora borealis displays than anywhere else on the planet.
In fact, 80 to 90 per cent of the most readily accessible landmass under the northern lights’ elliptical band is situated in Canada. Only rarely do they become visible to those who live further south. That happy event is happening right now. Nearly everyone who lives north of the equator should be able to look out a window at the sky and enjoy the pyrotechnic displays of the northern lights for a few weeks this fall.
By the end of August 2013, the increased sun spot activity that is characteristic of the 11-year Solar Maximum cycle will have ejected much more of the sun’s coronal mass into space than in a typical year. These coronal mass ejections (CMEs), many of which begin as solar flares from inside the sun, rip out a chunk of the sun’s atmosphere as they escape its gravity. Comprised mainly of ionized hydrogen, X-rays and gamma rays, CMEs travel more slowly than the speed of light, stretching out like tendrils at a mere 1.4 million kilometers per hour or so. In slow motion, it appears as if the fiery sphere of the sun suddenly grows a tentacle and becomes – temporarily – a living orange man-of-war jellyfish reaching out into deep space for contact. Sometimes, after about a day (or four or five), these CMEs then touch the Earth’s magnetic field. When such geomagnetic storms happen, their beauty can be as immense as their potential for danger.
In the past 70 years, there have been five known geomagnetic storms of extreme intensity. An amateur astronomer named Richard Carrington observed the first extreme storm in 1859. The Carrington event shut down much of the world’s telegraph network, making communication impossible and causing telegraph cables worldwide to burn and emit sparks.
We have obviously become much more reliant on our electrical grid than we were in Carrington’s lifetime. By 1919, most of North America’s consumed energy had shifted from steam to electricity, and since 1950, continental demand for electricity has increased by nearly 900 per cent. There are now more than 480,000 kilometres of long-range electrical cables in North America. All of them are connected in an overlapping design that is intended to prevent power outages in most regions. In addition, CMEs threaten the satellite network that informs all smart phones and other portable GPS devices. In 2013, nearly a billion new phones entered the worldwide market.
This year, the solar flares should be particularly intense because the peak 11-year Solar Maximum also coincides with a longer solar cycle. The Grand Solar Cycle was first observed in May 1921, a year after it began. Michael Lockwood, a professor of Space Environment Physics in the UK, says the coincidence of both cycles (aka a Grand Solar Maximum) means that “the peaks of the 11-year sunspot cycle are” much larger, so the “average number of solar flares and … coronal mass ejections are greater.”
The largest, or so-called X-class geomagnetic storms are incredibly powerful – the ground itself becomes electrified. This can cause the same disastrous result as a deliberate terrorist attack against the power grid using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. If the May 1921 storm happened today, it would shut down all electrical service to at least 130 million people in North America and burn 350 transformers in the US beyond repair.
Sometimes CMEs cause the most damage when a second wave of them reaches the Earth. This is exactly what happened during the Carrington event. The first wave of CMEs in 1859 temporarily disrupted telegraph communications. But within days, solar bombardment wore away the normal level of resistance provided by Earth’s electromagnetic field and the telegraph wires began to burn. When the Earth’s magnetic field is weakened, much more energy touches the surface. It can also cause ground currents to flow into power lines and overload the electrical equipment connected to them, including the heavy transformers on which the grid relies. When these transformers experience such overloads, they explode. Since they take years to build and cost at least a few million apiece, there are not a lot of spares available, and their removal and installation is quite time-consuming.
Electricity grids can fail following the most powerful CMEs, as they did in 1989 throughout Québec and much of the northeastern US when CMEs entered the Earth’s magnetic field and became a geomagnetic storm. Although the storm lasted only six hours, electrical overloads caused severe damage to the entire grid, leaving six million Québecers without power for at least half a day. The storm was much smaller than the Carrington event.
It would cost between $1- and $2-billion to supply surge suppressors to shield America’s electricity grid. But that cost is too much according to the 500 power companies who control the flow of electricity in the United States. Consequently in 2011, the Grid Law, which would have provided such protection, was defeated in the Senate following a powerful initiative by lobbyists. This seems shortsighted since an interruption to the shared North American power grid for only a day or two would bring both the Canadian and US economies to a halt. The daily average GDP in the US in 2012 was slightly more than $41-billion; in Canada, that figure was nearly $5-billion. In other words, we could pay for surge suppressors if we set aside the cash that North Americans will generate during the next hour.
What’s more, the dangers of geomagnetic storms are not limited to simple power failures. Unlike 1859, the social impact of a failed power grid would now be crushing because nearly every aspect of modern life depends on electricity. Electric light illuminates our 24-hour culture and keeps our urban spaces safe. Electric heat provides us with comfort in the most austere northern climates or air conditioning in warmer places. We require electricity for cooking, and for freezing and refrigerating our food to store or transport it. Much of our transportation and all of our communications rely on electricity. And since communication systems (like telephones, radio and the Internet) all rely on the ground-based electrical supply, these are all vulnerable to an intense geomagnetic storm. We have known this since 1972, when AT&T redesigned its trans-Atlantic cable system after a powerful CME shut down the telephone system
In addition to modern communications systems, our vital supply of fresh and potable water is vulnerable to these solar events because it is purified and delivered to our homes by an elaborate network of electrical pumps. Moreover, the vulnerability of these electrical pumps introduces a whole new class of dangers that might result from an extreme X-level geomagnetic storm. Water is far more necessary to the continuation of human life than food.
There is another frightening danger represented by the potential failure of electrical pumps as well. In the US, the cooling systems of 104 nuclear reactors depend on electrical power sources. Without water to cool them, the fuel rods within those reactors would soon begin to overheat. If they became so hot that the zirconium in which they are encased began to burn, there would then be little possibility of extinguishing the fire. For this reason, American reactors are required to keep a 30-day supply of diesel fuel on hand at all times to power the nuclear station’s back-up generators.
A meltdown like Chernobyl or Fukushima has never occurred in North America, although Three Mile Island was a very close call. Still, a recent report on the nuclear hazards of EMP attacks concludes that only 33 reactors in the US are not vulnerable to total grid failure following an intense geomagnetic storm. The vulnerability is concentrated in two areas: the northwest (Oregon and Washington) and the entire coastal area east of the Mississippi. Ironically, evacuation plans for both areas assume that the telephones, radio stations and Internet will remain intact, whereas these communication media would shut down in the earliest days of a geomagnetic event. The US emergency response regime would likely deal efficiently with the simultaneous meltdowns of several reactors, but 71 of America’s 104 reactors are now rated as very vulnerable because there is not sufficient shielding or systems redundancy in place to protect them.
America’s nuclear vulnerability is shared by Canada, where a central worry is that our nuclear infrastructure is centralized and aging. Two radioactive spills at the Point Lepreau New Brunswick plant in 2011 and 2012 raised security questions at all five of Canada’s nuclear power generating stations, which are mostly located within 200 kilometres of Toronto, the most densely populated region in the country.
The Darlington complex in Clarington, Ontario, is still a fairly modern site, completed in 1993. But both nuclear generating stations in Kincardine, Ontario, are now three decades old, and the Pickering plant – just 30 kilometres east of downtown Toronto – was completed in 1971. Pickering is one of the largest nuclear facilities in the world, and generates about 20 per cent of Ontario’s electrical energy. Anxieties about the failure of coolant pumps were heightened in Canada this year after a researcher accidentally shut them down at the Chalk River Nuclear Research Facility northwest of Ottawa on February 27. Canada is currently reviewing its vulnerability to reactor failure from a variety of threats.
But in spite of the calculable risks, there is hope that sometime soon we may be able to predict the size and number of solar flares that a sunspot will emit. Probability is on our side; space is vast and only a direct hit by a CME will likely damage the Earth significantly. In 2003, the most powerful known CME (rated somewhere between X-28 and X-45) dealt the Earth only a glancing blow, knocking out 14 transformers in South Africa. The sun is eight minutes away at the speed of light, but sunspots form gradually, and CMEs take days to reach Earth.
In 1997, NASA launched a satellite called Solar Shield to take on the exclusive task of observing the sun’s surface for sunspot activity. We know that a sunspot first forms as a dark mass on the surface of the sun, perhaps several days before a CME. The size of the darkening spot is a preliminary indication of the future CME’s force. A second sign is an inverse S-curve appearing in the X-ray signature of the sun’s corona. Both are best observed by sensitive X-ray telescopes that are unobstructed by Earth’s atmosphere.
However, Solar Shield was built to last only five years, and like many other satellites, it could easily fail during a solar event, when its systems are most subject to heat, particle bombardment and electrical stresses. CMEs often cause satellite failure. During a geomagnetic storm in March 1989, four US navigational satellites had to be shut down for days. Ironically, the Solar Maximum satellite itself fell out of orbit that same year. In 1998, the $250-million Galaxy IV spun out of control 32,000 kilometres above the Earth. Four other satellites failed at the same moment, so the main suspect was a solar flare. In recent years, 12 satellites have definitely been lost to the effects of space weather, and an equal number of CME-related satellite losses are suspected.
Much of the contemporary research concerning CMEs and solar flares takes place in Canada. In the 1950s, Canadian scientists fired “sounding rockets” into northern lights displays from Churchill, Manitoba. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre now houses a control centre for research on plasma, magnetospheric physics and CMEs. Today a vast network of nearly 60 space-probing instruments stretches across the Canadian North from Goose Bay, Labrador, to Inuvik, NWT. This network will soon be joined by the new $25-million Resolute Scatter Radar-Canada installation in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. All this is part of an emerging transpolar research network focused on the northern skies.
If an electromagnetic event like the one Carrington observed in 1859 were to happen this fall, it would scramble radio waves across the planet and disrupt everything from Global Positioning Systems to TVs to mobile devices, without exception. It would damage (in some cases destroy) satellites carrying much of Earth’s radio and television programming, telephone calls, text messages and GPS tracking information. After such an event, even after transmission capability was restored, there might be few satellite transmitters left. In 2012, the US National Academy of Sciences estimated that a severe solar storm might cause $2-trillion damage to the nation’s communications systems alone.
We can do a few things to protect the power grid from geomagnetic storms. At $2-billion, the surge suppressor option seems cost-effective and reasonable, although it would take time to complete. So too would the separation of the entire electrical grid into less vulnerable local micro-grids like the ones Thomas Edison first developed to serve individual communities. Finally, the suggestion that we simply ground the world’s electrical grid is eminently doable. We should get to work on that today.
Unless there is sufficient warning, it is very difficult to secure the technology we launch into space. For that reason, we should also begin to fund a new generation of solar observation satellites with sufficient redundancy, so there would always be one on the far side of the planet when a CME collided with the Earth’s magnetic field. The last thing is to find global funding for an accurate method of predicting the size, number and direction of solar flares.
Finally, remember that not all solar flares that become CMEs are dangerous. Only when powerful CMEs penetrate the Earth’s magnetic field as a geomagnetic storm is our electricity grid threatened. If that does happen, you can pre-plan to protect your own personal electronics inside a quick-to-assemble Faraday cage that distributes electrical energy away from your device.
In the likely event that it doesn’t happen, put your electronics away and enjoy the northern lights show while it lasts.
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