Solar Superstorm Could Fry World's Electric Grids

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WASHINGTON -- The potential for no electric power, no communication, no water -- all caused by superstorms from the sun?

The world's scientists have their eyes on space these days, wondering if massive solar flares will seriously disrupt our way of life. A growing number of these storms could mean big problems for a world so heavily dependent on technology.

Scientists warn there's a dangerous side to the hypnotic glow of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, especially if the colorful display shows up in more southerly locations.

"It was so bright that you could read newspapers at night by the glow of the Aurora Borealis," explained Dr. Peter Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security.

In 1859, the Northern Lights could be seen from the equator, a sign of an extraordinarily powerful solar or geomagnetic storm, according to Pry.

The Carrington Event

Scientists named it the Carrington Event after Richard Carrington, an amateur astronomer who observed a "white light" flare on the sun.

A massive, bubble-shaped burst of plasma expanding outward from the sun, containing large amounts of superheated particles, is known as a coronal mass ejection or CME.

"There's more energy concentrated in this one spot than there is someplace else, and it's enough to breach the gravity field," Pry said.

CMEs have escaped the gravity field of the sun several times this year already, including the strong solar storm that drew so much attention in early March.

The solar wind carries the large, violent ejection of charged particles toward the earth at speeds of more than four million miles per hour. The resulting collision with the earth's magnetic field produces a geomagnetic storm.

In 1859, a solar superstorm disrupted the world's telegraph system, even causing fires at some telegraph stations.

In today's technology-driven world, an extreme radiation blast like that could disrupt spacecraft, satellites, GPS, airplane flights, and power grids.

"When you're dealing with currents large enough to create problems even for a simple telegraph network, that raises concerns for modern equipment. And in this case, it's really the transformers -- these big, very difficult to replace transformers that are the concern," Dr. Avi Schnurr, chief executive officer of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, told CBN News.

"If an 1859 Carrington event happened today, it would collapse electric grids not just in the United States but across the entire planet," Pry added.

Pry and Schnurr say that would mean catastrophic consequences.

"Without the electric grid, well of course, there's no power. There's also no water. There's also no communications, no transportation, no medical care," Schnurr said.

"The financial system would be down. The environmental effects would be catastrophic at a level that we've never seen before," he elaborated.

Solutions to Solar Problem?

So what is the solution? How do we protect ourselves from a catastrophe in the event another solar superstorm strikes the earth like the one in 1859?

Should we build more hardware on the ground to block the impact or should there be greater forecasting techniques?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Dr. Antti Pulkkinen is a solar scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA scientists at the center have developed state-of-the-art space weather forecasting techniques so people know when a "solar Katrina" is heading towards earth.

"We have seen quite an increase in terms of solar activity over the past couple of years exactly because of this approaching solar maximum," Pulkkinen told CBN News.

Roughly every 11 years, the sun enters a solar maximum phase. Scientists believe the next one will begin at the end of this year and last through 2013.

"I think that it's without a question that we are becoming more and more vulnerable to space weather, so this increasing understanding and the capability to forecast space weather is very timely right now," Pulkkinen said.

Electromagnetic Pulses

Other scientists say while cutting-edge research and forecasting are important, steps can be taken to fortify the electric grid.

"There is something called series capacitance which can be built into the grid," Schnurr explained. "This in fact was done in Quebec."

In 1989, a severe solar storm took only 90 seconds to wipe out power across the entire Canadian province of Quebec. It took up to two weeks for all electrical power to be restored.

Power industry leaders then took steps to protect the grid from dangerous electromagnetic pulses.

Schnurr said a more modern version of that protection could be built into grids today at a reasonable cost. New prototypes of so-called "current blockers" are one example.

Pry agreed and listed other ways to protect the electric grid.

"There are other things called surge arresters that can stop it," he said. "You can do things like build Faraday cages around transformers. A Faraday cage is just basically a metal box, and the pulse gets short-circuited."

Solar Superstorm Apocalypse?

Scientists like Pry and Schnurr believe solar superstorms could be apocalyptic.

However, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, disagrees.

It recently found that the most likely result from a severe solar storm would be the loss of reactive power. That might then lead to voltage instability, not the failure of a large number of transformers.

Scientists believe restoring power after a voltage collapse would only take hours or days, while replacing transformers could leave people in the dark for months, even years.

Pry called the NERC report "junk science" and said it puts the lives of millions in danger.

Mark Lauby, NERC's vice president, stands by the report.

"The results from the report are very open," Lauby told CBN News. "Anybody can get the open source code. They can look at the results in the report, and they can give us their views."

Scientists and engineers disagree on the magnitude of the impact of solar superstorms. Those who believe the consequences can be catastrophic hope protective measures are put in place before it's too late.

*Published Mar. 20, 2012.

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.