Sunday, February 20, 2011

A $2 Trillion Solar Katrina and How To Prepare

Could solar storms cause devastation akin to a global Hurricane Katrina? And how can we best prepare ourselves? Science's deputy news editor Robert Coontz speaks with Thomas Bogdan of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Bogdan spoke at a session here yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW).

Preparing for the next big solar storm
Credit: Science

Monitoring and forecasting solar outbursts in time to reduce their effect on space-based technologies have become new national priorities. And NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), part of NOAA’s National Weather Service, is the nation’s official source of space weather forecasts, alerts, and warnings.

Credit: NASA 

“The Space Weather Prediction Center is critical to our economy because each time we use a cell phone or pager, check a GPS locator, turn on a light, or take an over-the-pole flight, space weather could have an effect,” said Jack Hayes, Ph.D., director of NOAA’s National Weather Service.

A NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts details what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a "super solar flare" followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm. They found that almost nothing is immune from space weather—not even the water in your bathroom.

To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. 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 re-supply and so on."

"The concept of interdependency," the report notes, "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."
Below:  What if the May 1921 superstorm occurred today? A US map of vulnerable transformers with areas of probable system collapse encircled. A state-by-state map of transformer vulnerability is also available: click here. 
see caption
Credit: National Academy of Sciences.

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921.

"A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions," the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected.

Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.

A web of interdependencies makes the modern economy especially sensitive to solar storms.
Source: Dept. of Homeland Security.

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