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The Underappreciated Risks of Severe Space Weather 361

Posted by kdawson
from the my-kingdom-for-a-horse dept.
circletimessquare notes a New Scientist piece calling attention to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, which attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of severe solar electromagnetic storms. "In 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington noticed 'two patches of intensely bright and white light' near some sunspots. At the same time, Victorian era magnetometers went off the charts, stunning auroras were being viewed at the equator, and telegraph networks were disrupted — sparks flew from terminals and ignited telegraph paper on fire. It became known as the Carrington event, and the National Academy of Sciences worries about the impact of another such event today and the lack of awareness among officials. It would induce un-designed-for voltages in all high-voltage, long-distance power lines, and destroy transformers, as Quebec learned in 1989. Without electricity, water would stop flowing from the tap, gasoline would stop being pumped, and health care would cease after the emergency generators gave up the ghost after 72 hours. Replacing all of the transformers would take months, if not years. The paradox would be that underdeveloped countries would fare better than developed ones. Our only warning system is a satellite called the Advanced Composition Explorer, in solar orbit between the Sun and the Earth. It is 11 years old and past its planned lifespan. It might give us as much as 15 minutes of warning, and transformers might be able to be disconnected in time. But currently no country has such a contingency plan."
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The Underappreciated Risks of Severe Space Weather

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  • ...Surely there is a single word that could replace "un-designed-for"?...
  • Another good reason. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by palegray.net (1195047) <philip.paradisNO@SPAMpalegray.net> on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:33AM (#27356281) Homepage Journal
    Sounds like another good reason for those who can to take a serious look at getting off the grid, or at least being able to disconnect from the grid and mostly sustain their own needs on the homefront. Kinda funny that wacky survivalists might have the last laugh in an event like this.
    • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:37AM (#27356311) Journal

      Kinda funny that wacky survivalists might have the last laugh in an event like this.

      Just as long as the space weather doesn't render my firearms inoperable ;)

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Thelasko (1196535)

        Just as long as the space weather doesn't render my firearms inoperable ;)

        I should have bought that riot gun instead of a taser. :(

      • by rbanffy (584143)

        Only your ray-guns should have problems. Any weapon based on a mechanical trigger that starts a chemical reaction should remain functional.

        Depending on the event severity, you should be careful in case your railguns misfire.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      So you are a doctor? Just how will you fuel your genset? Pick up a copy of HomePower sometime and you will see a lot of ads for gensets.
      Also even if you have a windmill, solar, and maybe even a small hydro system so that you can live without a gen set are you sure that you will not have your inverter blow up? We are talking a huge EMP.
      Also no internet, landline, and or cell....
      Seems like it would be better to try and plan to keep our modern society than too move to the woods.

    • by Xest (935314) on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:55AM (#27356543)

      So let me get this straight.

      You're suggesting that because a freak event may or may not happen in someone's lifetime that they should consider living a life that they personally found miserable, so that they could point and say "Hah! I told you so!" for a few days before everyone gets power back and start playing on their XBox's in their nice warm heated houses again?

      I'm not convinced it's worth drastically altering your life away from what you know and enjoy for something that may or may not ever actually happen and when it does would realistically just inconvenience you for a short period of time before getting back to normal (it wouldn't be as bad as the summary/article suggests anymore than we'd be getting blown up by terrorists daily if we listened to the Bush/British governments).

      The article cites Quebec in 1989 as an example, yet today Quebec doesn't seem to be the desolate Fallout style wasteland where everyone is fending for themselves and millions die that the article infers might happen.

      • by courtjester801 (1415457) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:32AM (#27357027)
        Quebec doesn't seem to be the desolate Fallout style wasteland where everyone is fending for themselves and millions die that the article infers might happen.

        No, you're thinking of Detroit.
      • yet today Quebec doesn't seem to be the desolate Fallout style wasteland where everyone is fending for themselves and millions die that the article infers might happen.

        Clearly you have never been to Quebec...

        Okay, that was in jest, but more seriously, the biggest problem with this event would be that it'd be global (or at least 50% global) rather than localised, so while Quebec had a lot of help, the situation as mentioned would leave you with pretty much no help from anywhere. I doubt it'd be "a post apocalyptic wasteland" or anything as serious as the article as trying to infer, but it'd be REALLY annoying nevertheless.

    • Sounds like another good reason for those who can to take a serious look at getting off the grid, or at least being able to disconnect from the grid and mostly sustain their own needs on the homefront. Kinda funny that wacky survivalists might have the last laugh in an event like this.

      Having almost been one of those wacky survivalists (mostly interested in turning my property into a self-sustaining system), it's damned hard.

      First, if you aren't willing to give up all your modern conveniences, you are going

      • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:27AM (#27356955) Journal

        Having almost been one of those wacky survivalists (mostly interested in turning my property into a self-sustaining system), it's damned hard.

        First, if you aren't willing to give up all your modern conveniences

        Isn't the point of small 's' survivalism (as opposed to Survivalism) to have the ability to survive without those conveniences, not necessarily to go without them entirely?

      • by Bob-taro (996889)

        But I really don't want to think what would happen to the battery bank from a wind turbine or solar panels in this sort of situation.

        I think the main problem is with long wires acting like an antenna and picking up a significant potential. I don't know what frequency EM we're talking about, but it's possible it wouldn't affect small devices or even smaller scale power systems where the longest wires are the ones running up a residential windmill tower.

    • by Locklin (1074657)

      So those wacky survivalists might have the last laugh *if* some rare and devastating emergency happens to occur during their lifetime and they have specifically prepared for it. And that's odd to you?

      Of course they will "have the last laugh" *if* it happens. The reason the rest of us laugh at them is because they are investing so much of their resources into their "pet" unlikely contingency.

    • by dazedNconfuzed (154242) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:12AM (#27356729)

      Last time a major TEOTWAWKI event was looming (Y2K), I described the threat to my father in great detail. His response: [shrug] "I'll throw another log on the fire and go back to my book." True enough, my folks' lives are pervaded by self-sufficiency, including extensive wood heat, well water and homegrown food. Society shuts down, they just spend a few minutes adjusting and carry on.

      But ... you wouldn't guess that at a glance. They have elegantly integrated the survivalist mindset with modern conveniences, enjoying everything technology has to offer without worries of what to do if the grid shuts down indefinitely. Everything has a low-tech backup, preparations for self-sufficiency are ongoing and already in use.

      You can live a "survivalist" lifestyle, and still be fully "wired". The two ways of life are not diametrically opposed.

    • by zogger (617870) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:43AM (#27357227) Homepage Journal

      "Wacky survivalists" is an historically very recent notion. For the bulk of mankind's history, having a well stocked larder-stores adequate to get you through to the next harvest season- and the means to supply yourself with adequate shelter and heat and water, etc based on your own and mostly local sources was quite the ordinary norm. It has only been the last two or three generations where that started to fall out of favor.

      We have had numerous examples of much smaller and more localized infrastructure destruction, and the best observations have shown that areas start to suffer fast after a three day outage of general modern technology. Just in time delivery systems and centralized power and water and natgas delivery and so on are the main cause of that.without massive outside the region resupply, that's it, civilization falls apart rapidly. Three days isn't very long. If the event/disaster is much longer than three days, and no outside help is coming in (because the next region over is just as bad off, as the region next to that, etc), you'd see some pretty dire circumstances arise.

        Here is one example for the US, we no longer maintain a national emergency bulk food stockpile. It used to be millions of bushels of this or that, dried milk and so on. We maintained that for decades, then they stopped and went to what is called set aside. This is due to farming changes and "the market". We- the government "we"- used to pay minimal price controls and stockpile various surplus foods, in order to maintain our domestic agricultural base through wild market swings and seasonal weather variations, but they more or less stopped that some time ago and now we have no stockpiled food, they sold the last of it off earlier last year finally.

      In other words, on a very large scale, we have no backup civilization or big national pantry. It doesn't exist, just not there. The government has zero provisions to help the people in general at any national scale sized event. They have provisions to use military force to "stay in charge", they call it "maintaining continuity of government", that's it. We have a national petroleum reserve as the only exception, and it is in the form of just crude, it would still need refining and delivery-that's iffy enough in such a scenario to even be possible- (and even then most would go to the government and not the people).

      On the other hand, there is nothing stopping people from instituting their own stores and provisions and having a personal backup protection scheme, the "wacky survivalists" type method that all our ancestors considered normal and a very good idea. In the community we still call it survivalism, but it has a less scary name now too, "practical preparedness". Here is a plain vanilla example, for roughly the same cash people put into a big screen plasma TV they can have a decent amount of long term dried stored food. For what a cheap laptop or other "must have" electronic gadget of the month costs, you can have a pretty decent gravity powered water filter. The folks in suburbia and in the hinterland get laughed at a lot as having unsustainable lifestyles, but they are living in the only places where you can have a rationally large enough local garden and access to alternative water supplies, etc, along with firewood. Choices one can choose now in other words. All the big cities would collapse rapidly in such a national sized electronic disaster as in TFA, it would become beyond ugly, right up to and including cannibalism.

      Basically, the government sucks when it comes to national and practical "civil defense". They only have a military solution. The military doesn't produce anything, it just takes it/spends it/wears it out. Look at the recent articles about the relatively small numbers of homeless in California, possibly our richest state. They can't even deal with such a teeny tiny homeless situation at very low numbers adequately. Extrapolate those numbers from thousands to tens of millions or more and it becomes easy to see the problems...

      So it is up to the individual now to decide to incorporate a practical preparedness plan and alter lifestyle a little bit, the article scenario is only one of many potential wildcards that could occur.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Synn (6288)

        You don't even have to spend much money to be properly prepared. You can just start to buy, store and cycle through long term storable food items. Rice, beans, potatoes, dried pasta, canned goods, bottled water, etc. You just buy it in bulk, store it, and use it regularly to keep a fresh mix coming in.

        Then when something happens, a bad storm hits, you lose your job, etc, you'll have a nice store of foods piled up you normally eat anyway.

    • by vertinox (846076)

      Kinda funny that wacky survivalists might have the last laugh in an event like this.

      Unless of course the space weather is so bad it kills off everything with radiation... Then those who have bunkers 100ft below the surface will have the last laugh.

  • Doomsday situation (Score:4, Interesting)

    by I.M.O.G. (811163) <spamisyummy@gmail.com> on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:35AM (#27356293) Homepage

    Like many others here, I don't prescribe to these doomsday scenarios that get rolled onto center stage every so often.

    I remember when the northeast US had a power outage that lasted a few days just a few years back. It was no where near as dramatic or dire as this summary suggests the situation could be. I still had water and gas in Ohio.

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:42AM (#27356387) Journal

      I remember when the northeast US had a power outage that lasted a few days just a few years back. It was no where near as dramatic or dire as this summary suggests the situation could be. I still had water and gas in Ohio.

      Then you should RTFA. I read this article yesterday and toyed with submitting it but didn't bother. One of the things that could happen with a large enough space weather event is the destruction of distribution transformers on a region wide (nationwide in the case of small countries like the Scandinavian ones) scale.

      No power utility has enough spare distribution transformers on hand to replace all of them after they go. They are usually built to order and take 12 months or more to produce. So why don't you imagine a power outage that lasts for months or years across the entire Northeast United States and tell me how undramatic it is? No refrigeration, no gasoline for your car (no electric to pump it through pipelines or service stations), limited and rationed modern medicine, no pumped potable water, no water treatment plants, no HVAC systems, limited communications, etc, etc, etc.

      Sound dire enough to take seriously now?

      • by I.M.O.G. (811163)

        They go boom, they get replaced or otherwise repaired. The situation if so drastic would right itself due to economic forces that encourage such. We have the technology and knowledge to fix these sorts of problems, which leaves the only other factor - money. It will always be more expensive to be without power than it is to restore power, hence a solution will be put into place, even in the worst case scenario.

        I could imagine alongside you all day, but it won't ever come to pass. Have fun RTFA.

        • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:13AM (#27356751) Journal

          They go boom, they get replaced or otherwise repaired. The situation if so drastic would right itself due to economic forces that encourage such.

          What part of 12 months to build them is so hard to understand? Even if that timescale could be shortened do you think the infrastructure exists to produce large numbers of these items in a short period of time? Yes the situation would eventually right itself through economic and other factors. Yes the human race would survive. But you'd still have hundreds of millions of people without power and the benefits of modern civilization for months. Almost every single piece of technology that supports civilization (particularly high population density civilization) depends on the electrical grid

          I could imagine alongside you all day, but it won't ever come to pass. Have fun RTFA.

          It has [nasa.gov] come to pass in the past. Within the last 200 years as a matter of fact. If a similiar event happened today (the whole point of the article that you apparently refuse to read) it would wreck havoc with modern infrastructure. In 1859 all that existed to disrupt were telegraph networks. Today our entire civilization depends on infrastructure that is vulnerable.

          Sticking your head in the sand and refusing to even read the article might be typical /. behavior but all it accomplishes in the end is to confirm your ignorance.

          • by vertinox (846076)

            But you'd still have hundreds of millions of people without power and the benefits of modern civilization for months.

            You're saying that likes its a bad thing.

      • by Deag (250823)

        In fairness if the pump fails on a service station, I'd give it a week before someone digs a hole and uses a bucket.

      • by rubycodez (864176)

        no, better to ignore the article,it's a bunch of sensationalist crap that gets stress-puppy personalities all wound up. Reality is that repeated stresses over period of many days or weeks would lead to occasional and sporadic failures.

      • I call bullshit... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by denzacar (181829) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:18AM (#27356825) Journal

        Bullshit, FUD and fearmongering...

        No power utility has enough spare distribution transformers on hand to replace all of them after they go. They are usually built to order and take 12 months or more to produce. So why don't you imagine a power outage that lasts for months or years across the entire Northeast United States and tell me how undramatic it is? No refrigeration, no gasoline for your car (no electric to pump it through pipelines or service stations), limited and rationed modern medicine, no pumped potable water, no water treatment plants, no HVAC systems, limited communications, etc, etc, etc.

        In a case of a large scale power-system breakdown you don't go and try to bring it all back up all at once.
        And you sure as hell don't sit on your ass crying, mourning the end of civilization and your X-box points.

        Instead, teams of experienced technicians (you know... all those people with the various degrees in electrical engineering) start fixing the grid so that they can have parts of it running as soon as possible.
        1 transformer, 2 transformers, 3 transformers, 4...
        You lack the parts? Pillage the dead transformers. There is a PRETTY good chance you can take 2 or 3 dead ones and have 1 working in under 24 hours.
        Fix the ones that CAN be fixed, leave the completely messed up ones for later replacement.
        Don't have enough power to power the entire town cause the nation-wide system is down? DON'T.
        Give one half of town 12 hours of power and then turn them off for the next 12 hours while the other half gets their 12 hours. Or 8. Or 6.

        Hell... During the war (I'm from Bosnia) people used to steal cooling oil from the transformers (you can run chainsaws for cutting wood, and even cars on that stuff), artillery shells would explode next to them drilling them up with shrapnel, even the local power-plant got hit couple of times so bad that technicians had to take it off line to patch the pipes in the cooling towers.
        Let me tell you... you get used to 4 hours of electricity per day (or less) VERY fast.
        You leave the lights on to wake you up when it comes on.
        Charge the batteries, cook, wash clothes, heat up the boiler and then go about your business waiting for better times.

        • Scrounging parts? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by oneiros27 (46144) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:35AM (#27358059) Homepage

          You lack the parts? Pillage the dead transformers. There is a PRETTY good chance you can take 2 or 3 dead ones and have 1 working in under 24 hours

          You're assuming that they're going to fail in random ways. What's being described is that every one of them fails in exactly the same way -- which means you can't cobble together a single working one from multiple failed ones.

          You're right in that things likely won't fail nearly as badly as they make it out to be -- I know the power companies have the ability to do rolling brownouts, as we used to regularly have them when I lived in DC ... it's only a small step to rolling backouts like you describe after that.

          What is going to happen is that people are going to have a horrible jolt to their comfort levels. We'll move from TV to battery powered radios, and have to give up our dependance on pre-made frozen meals. Other than the medical issues described, it's not going to kill us unless we refuse to adapt. We'll probably lose more to riots and looting than directly caused reasons.

        • by Half-pint HAL (718102) on Friday March 27, 2009 @11:49AM (#27358309)

          You lack the parts? Pillage the dead transformers. There is a PRETTY good chance you can take 2 or 3 dead ones and have 1 working in under 24 hours.

          Sorry, I think I missed the part where you said you were a power-systems engineer. For those of us not in the know, can you explain which parts of what is in essence little more than two large coils of wire can be salvaged when the wire has caught light?

          Give one half of town 12 hours of power and then turn them off for the next 12 hours while the other half gets their 12 hours. Or 8. Or 6.

          How? We're not just talking about supply problems, we're talking distribution as well. With powerlines and substations down, there's no way to switch who gets the power.

          Let me tell you... you get used to 4 hours of electricity per day (or less) VERY fast. You leave the lights on to wake you up when it comes on. Charge the batteries, cook, wash clothes, heat up the boiler and then go about your business waiting for better times.

          Again, the scenario in TFA is about complete blackout, not intermittent supply -- this is on a completely different scale. But without as many bullets and mortar bombs, hopefully.

          HAL.

      • by cabjf (710106)
        I think you'll see the fastest shift from remote power generation to local ever. While it would take a long time to replace all the transformers, that's not to say everyone would sit around and twiddle their thumbs waiting for the power to get turned back on.

        Who would complain about things like wind power being an eyesore when there is suddenly a great need for power production in the immediate vicinity? I think it would spell the end of any smaller towns out away from large cities and the cities will
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      That NE power outage was mostly just load induced (power lines sagging and grounding on trees) disconnects, and a few key damaged lines. What they are talking about is a not insignifigant percentage of the main distribution transformers being damaged enough to be inoperable, plus a number of other effects, if caught unaware.

      The reason this would be an issue is not that it would take down the distribution grid due to load effects. The concern with a CME of that size, is that it would destroy a large percenta

    • by Thelasko (1196535)
      I thought we had circuit breakers to prevent these problems.

      Solar storm comes and trips breakers
      Solar storm passes, reset breakers

      See, not so bad.
      • I thought we had circuit breakers to prevent these problems.

        You don't need a closed circuit to fry a small coil with a big enough inductive load.

        But aren't these things fairly well shielded anyway? I can't imagine a big EMP pulse getting through a zinc wrapper (galvanised steel can, isn't it?) and then I'd think you're dealing with some fairly heavy duty windings. Power line transformers survive lightning strikes sometimes, don't they?

        Electronics, yes, some stuff would fry. But electrical supply? I don't think so. Some of the SCADA controllers would fry, but th

        • by Thelasko (1196535)

          But aren't these things fairly well shielded anyway?

          Exactly, I think this whole article is alarmist, it doesn't even mention any of these possible protection devices.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          But aren't these things fairly well shielded anyway? I can't imagine a big EMP pulse getting through a zinc wrapper (galvanised steel can, isn't it?) and then I'd think you're dealing with some fairly heavy duty windings. Power line transformers survive lightning strikes sometimes, don't they?

          Electronics, yes, some stuff would fry. But electrical supply?

          The problem is the really long wires in the power grid. EMP effects are of the form "X volts per meter", so I'd expect your wristwatch and unplugged laptop to be fine. Power transformers connected to miles of wire wouldn't do so well... maybe the voltages wouldn't actually be much higher than the normal multi-kilovolt line voltages, but they'd be DC (or very low frequency) instead of 60 Hz AC which makes a big difference for inductive devices like transformers.

          I believe circuit breakers are also harder to m

        • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:19AM (#27356829) Journal

          But aren't these things fairly well shielded anyway?

          No, they aren't. The part of the grid that picks up the load is the distribution lines themselves. They aren't shielded in any deployment that I'm aware of and it would probably be prohibitively expensive to do so.

          The inductive load imparts a huge amount of DC current onto the AC power grid and trashes the windings in the connected transformers. The defense is to disconnect those transformers from the grid but that only works if you have enough advance warning. Currently we have no formal process to handle this early warning (though the technology does exist) and no plans/procedures in place to disseminate that warning to the power utilities and for them to take action.

          RTFA. It's actually a pretty interesting read. It's not a doomsday scenario -- we'd survive as a people and as a country. We'd just suffer some pretty substantial damage in the process.

  • I live in the countryside. Well, more the suburbs now. Since time immemorial people in rural areas have had to deal with power cuts and blackouts, sometimes lasting days.

    Amazingly, the vast majority survived.

    Candles, flashlamps, tinned food and a fireplace get you through most of the time. Bedtime usually comes earlier. Yes you can't play video games or listen to your mp3s, but there are book, or at worst other people with which you can occupy your time.

    As much as the thought of millions of pampered city dwellers wailing helplessly in the darkness might amuse me, I can not imagine that their lives are so different to country people as to make survival a difficult prospect. Yes, it could take days for the power to come back. But people will make it. Business will make it. Society and civilization as we know it, will probably make it.

    Yes. I know that sci-fi-esque stories using words like "electromagnetic", "storm" and "disaster" might worry those with active imaginations. I know that newspapers love to print them next to their ad pages. Someday, someone might even make a Hollywood movie about just such a tale, and then people will really start talking about it. But people must always try to remember that just because someone says something, that doesn't mean they are correct.

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:45AM (#27356409) Journal

      Yes, it could take days for the power to come back

      Try months or years if the event is large enough to destroy transformers on a region or nationwide scale.

      • by blueg3 (192743)

        You'd think people would divert significantly more resources into building new transformers.

    • by dkleinsc (563838) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:08AM (#27356681) Homepage

      As much as the thought of millions of pampered city dwellers wailing helplessly in the darkness might amuse me, I can not imagine that their lives are so different to country people as to make survival a difficult prospect.

      There are a number of potential problems that us pampered city dwellers have to deal with in the case of an extended power outage that simply aren't as much of a problem in rural areas, such as:
      1. Traffic lights being shut down, which can grind traffic and thus commerce to a halt.
      2. Crime.
      3. Panicking people who don't have the sense to just wait it out.

      And of course, most everyone who works in technical jobs is out of work until the power comes back on.

    • Just hope that it doesn't happen in the winter.

      No power - no heat. Even with natural gas, you can't turn on the furnace or the blower to get that heat throughout the house.

      No heat - pipes freeze. No pipes, no water. Sure you can drain your pipes, but you still don't have water until the heat is back. Now you have to worry about what to drink, (no heat, it's hard to melt snow), and how to take care of sanitation.

      No power, no transportation. In a large city you NEED the traffic lights, especially if the

  • by oneiros27 (46144) on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:47AM (#27356437) Homepage

    That's just flat out wrong.

    ACE might have a better ground network (let's face it, it's easier to talk to as it's at L1), but STEREO-Behind can see areas of the sun that aren't visible from any other solar-observing mission. It's also remote sensing (ie, telescopes), so it doesn't have to wait until it gets hit by an event. (at which point, we're looking at the last 1M miles of a 93M mile trip)

    There's also instruments that have proven space-weather benefits on SOHO, but that's even older than ACE. I'm not going to say that ACE isn't the most important satellite in NOAA's eyes for predicting space weather (and some of their space weather folks have even mentioned that they might have to put up a similar satellite when ACE finally fails), but saying it's the only warning system discounts all of the other solar-observing missions used for space weather forecasting.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dtolman (688781)
      Bad summary - TFA just says it is the _best_ warning system, and that it needs replacement. Of course TFA is just an OK summary of a formal report that came out months ago - which also says pretty much the same thing.
  • Seriously? The one place where you could use "irony" correctly, and you choose "paradox"?

  • has recently begun [nasa.gov]. From the link:

    The onset of a new solar cycle is significant because of our increasingly space-based technological society. "Solar storms can disable satellites that we depend on for weather forecasts and GPS navigation," says Hathaway. Radio bursts from solar flares can directly interfere with cell phone reception while coronal mass ejections (CMEs) hitting Earth can cause electrical power outages. "The most famous example is the Quebec outage of 1989, which left some Canadians without

  • quiet sun? (Score:3, Informative)

    by scharkalvin (72228) on Friday March 27, 2009 @09:55AM (#27356537) Homepage

    The risk might not be as great in the near future as described. For one, solar flares large enough to do such damage are rare. Also in now appears that the sun is entering a more quiet phase, the next solar cycle that should have started by now hasn't, and the predictions for max sun spot numbers for the next cycle have been done graded several times. Short wave radio reception will probably not be as good as it was in the past 20 years. The Canadian flare incident happened during one of the more active solar periods, perhaps the last one for next century.

    • by Lokatana (530146)
      The sun moves in an 11 year cycle. Right now we're at the bottom part of the cycle, within 3 years we will be back at the top of the cycle. -Lok
  • How is space weather relevant, given that there's completely nothing you can do about it? It's not like putting tape on your windows will help keep your electrical grid from frying.

    • How is space weather relevant, given that there's completely nothing you can do about it? It's not like putting tape on your windows will help keep your electrical grid from frying.

      1. We can make a plan for when this happens.
      2. We can build back-ups for the very essential infrastructure.
      3. We can even attempt to protect our equipment and avoid the catastrophic failure.

      4. And I can go by bike to work, and do my work with pen and paper, and communicate results by ordinary mail. I'm sure it's very peaceful and relaxing. :)

      What do you mean "we can't do anything about it"?

      All it takes to keep the water running is a system that we have had for over a century. The water system in the 1960's

      • by Gothmolly (148874)

        Did you miss the part about how once the generator fuel tanks dry up, there's no more fuel? Or how "ordinary mail" won't work without an IT and fuel delivery infrastructure? The only thing you can do to prepare for a cataclysmic solar event is stockpile booze, cigarettes, and shotgun shells.

  • Pacemakers? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dazedNconfuzed (154242) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:01AM (#27356581)

    As a cyborg (literally, if technically) I have to wonder what such a solar electrical storm would do to implanted electronic medical devices, such as my pacemaker. Any knowledgeable insights? If this [medtronic.com] shuts down, I'm history in seconds.

    • the problem with a powerful moving magnetic field is induction: it forces eletron flow in wires. emphasis: wires, or any piece of metal with a large ratio of length/ width/ height to the other two dimensions. a wire is a perfect victim for a moving magnetic field because it presents a very long cross section to the magnetic field, and thats what makes the induction powerful

      meanwhile, your medtronic device is small and compact, so it doesn't present a large cross section to the magnetic field as it hits the

      • Note that the device has three 1.5' leads stretched around my innards. My cardiologist has warned against being too close (whatever that entails) to electric motors/generators, speakers, and other relatively large electromagnetic sources. Specifically he warned against
        - cradling a phone on my left shoulder
        - doing car maintenance with the engine running
        - chainsaws
        - music headphones too close to wired areas (like in left shirt pocket)
        - and other "you get the idea" moving magnetic fields within range

        • if the source of the magnetic torque is 3 feet from you, extends 5 feet, and the wire in question is 1.5 feet, then it is possible to orient everything in just such a way that a dangerous current is induced

          but on the scale of a geomagnetic storm, 1.5 feet isn't enough, i don't think. you'd need a wire a few miles long to pick up on a global effect, i think

          again, i could be wrong, but the way my mind is thinking about it in analogy is: your pacemaker is a kid's pinwheel, and a nearby electric motor is a squi

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by curmudgeous (710771)

            ..."but on the scale of a geomagnetic storm, 1.5 feet isn't enough, i don't think. you'd need a wire a few miles long to pick up on a global effect, i think...

            Well thanks for ruining my happy thoughts. I was sitting here picturing thousands upon thousands of iPods (and users) bursting into flame.

    • by quax (19371)

      If you receive an advance warning of such an electrical storm your car will offer perfect shelter. The metal enclosure will act as a Faraday cage.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:03AM (#27356603)

    Everyone should know how to build a basic cooking fire. Everyone should have at least one solar panel. Everyone should have spare water. Everyone should be able to kill & gut a fish, gopher, (or neighborhood dog if necessary). It seems like everyone today looks toward the government for help during emergencies when they should be relying on family and community.
    If a big earthquake hits or a big solar flare lands... the government isn't going to get help to you for at least TWO WEEKS.

  • by Tildedot (137711) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:17AM (#27356801)

    I really expect more from these guys.

    That the power grid in this country would become a set of large antennas during a "carrington event" is an interesting problem. Inducted current would be tremendous. There would be fires, almost certainly, and blown transformers. Fusable links might help with the transformer issue, but I'm sure that some significant amount of transformer capability would be taken offline. Power stations would likely be immune from meltdown, but I don't know if standard trips would keep them all whole. Let's say that some 50% of the generating capacity (very generous), and 70% of the transformers (possibly low), were taken out by this event. A significant inconvenience, to be sure. Nothing that we, as individuals -- and as a society, could not handle. To assume, like the authors of this article, that the most powerful country in the world would simply roll-over is preposterous.

    To propose, seriously, that "Modern Healthcare" would end in 72 hours when the emergency generators ran out of fuel -- this is ridiculous. The article's premise that modern civilization in our country would be thrown back to "third world" conditions is also completely without merit. Not to belittle the situation -- it would, in a word, suck. That said, we would rise to the occasion, I am sure of it.

    Let's just, for a moment, reflect on how deep the fuel infrastructure is in this country. A power grid is not required for fuel distribution, though some level of power is required. Pumps that pump diesel can be run by generators, many refineries are capable of using their own product to generate power, and distribution of fuel to Hospitals and the like is a standard emergency procedure. Trains, tanker trucks, and ships continue to run. The transportation infrastructure would remain largely intact beyond the boundaries of very large metropolitan areas. The roads would continue to roll, and with it, teams of people working to fix the problem.

    First, the plants, then the substations, then the cities and transmission lines. Would it be hard? Of course it would be hard. But we would continue to make it work, to adapt and overcome, and in the process make it better.

  • SpaceWeather.Com (Score:3, Informative)

    by Sigfried (779148) on Friday March 27, 2009 @10:23AM (#27356879)
    Check out spaceweather.com. It has been around for some time, and has some excellent aurora galleries [spaceweather.com]. Besides summarized ACE data, this website also features the techie-cool far side views of the sun from SOHO, computed using helioseismic holography. For the truly worried, they offer for-fee email solar-flare alert services, which also come in handy if you just want to know when to go out to look for auroras. Anyway, most of the site is non-subscription, and it's worth a look.
  • This is the time of a solar minimum, then the sun is quieter that ever. Literally, it has the lowest recorded activity, ever.

    At the same time, I see these articles warning of a nationally nightly connected power grid. At the same time, Gore is arguing for a national highly connected power grid. What I take from that is Gore should not be the one deciding how we structure our power grid. He's plunge the entire nation into blackness for weeks, rather than just a portion of it. With global consequences far exc

  • Is no one here reminded of the floating island of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels? You have a bunch of people on a magnetically floating island looking up and worrying about the state of the sun, and thinking that the world is just about to end.
  • What about putting some large capacitors in series with the transformers? A capacitor will pass AC without too much trouble, but will block DC currents such as the ones a solar event (or an EMP) will create. Even if the voltage generated is too high, one could use relays across the capacitors to detect DC voltages and use them to trip existing emergency disconnects.

    Of course, the big question is (and always will be), how much would it cost?

  • If these events generate so much power in the lines, shouldn't we try to make use of this power? Add circuits to store these over-voltages instead of letting them destroy the power grid.

    This sounds like it will be as terrible as the Y2K crisis was. Or was supposed to be.

  • all of the naysayers seem to point out examples that mean absolutely nothing about what we are talking about here

    1. "i live in a rural area, everything will be fine"

    actually yes, you are right, i agree rural areas will be totally fine. now: tell us about major urban centers, with population densities intrinsically dependent upon regular power, that would experience serious problems

    2. "we had a power outage, it wasn't that bad"

    yeah: it lasted a few days. we're talking MONTHS here

    3. "i come from a place with regular places intermittent power outages, we did ok"

    yeah, and life adapts when thats the status quo. we are talking about a highly electricty dependent society, that has had regular pwoer for decades, suddenly without power FOR MONTHS

    4. "you can get the transformers up quick, you can cannibalize 2 or 3 and get one working ok"

    all the transformers would be destroyed in exactly the same way. there is no backup supply on hand, adequate supply and distribution and installation would take weeks, months

    its not the lack of power that is the issue. the issue is the suddenness, the long time period, and the effect on high density areas that have grown accustomed to reliable electrity. so a lot of the naysayers here don't seem to attack the real issue here, and teach us nothing, not a damn thing, about what it would be like for that society which has depended upon regular power for decades, to suddenly not have it at all

    and then there is the idea this is all some sort of hollywood movie driven hysterical fearmongering. what? no one is pissing in their pants. its a valid concern, and the fix is not very difficult, and people are talking about it calmly. we cant' do that without being accused of screaming "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!" really?

    its worth discussing rationally and doing something about it? we have to do nothing about this problem because you think this is false alarmism? well, false alarmism is a real problem in this world. so is a false sense of complacency. it depends upon the nature of the problem. here we are talking about an issue which is relatively easy to fix, a valid long term concern, compared to threats like religious extremism or an asteroid the size of a football field. so why not discuss it rationally and go fix it?

I find you lack of faith in the forth dithturbing. - Darse ("Darth") Vader

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