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When Space Weather Attacks Earth 176

Posted by timothy
from the nature-black-and-cold-and-harsh dept.
Lasrick writes "Brad Plumer details the 1859 solar storm known as the Carrington Event. Pretty fascinating stuff: 'At the time, it was a dazzling display of nature. Yet if the same thing happened today, it would be an utter catastrophe...That's not a lurid sci-fi fantasy. It's a sober new assessment by Lloyd's of London, the world's oldest insurance market. The report notes that even a much smaller solar-induced geomagnetic storm in 1989 left 6 million people in Quebec without power for nine hours.'"
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When Space Weather Attacks Earth

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  • think big (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tloh (451585) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:14PM (#44270627)

    Understandably, the later half of the article talks about current solutions utilities and governments are considering to protect the infrastructure. However, let us just suppose for a moment that we are a type I civilization on the Kardashev scale. What type of conceptual solutions could be used to protect the whole planet instead of just small patches of people?

  • Re:OMG 9 hour... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jklovanc (1603149) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:18PM (#44270651)

    If your oxygen concentrator doesn't run for 9 hours

    There are other reasons that solar flares that cause power outages. If one's life depends on concentrated oxygen one should have a backup supply to last a few days.

    you can't keep your insulin cold for 9 hours

    According to the FDA [fda.gov] insulin will last quite a while without refrigeration.

    Insulin products contained in vials or cartridges supplied by the manufacturers (opened or unopened) may be left unrefrigerated at a temperature between 59F and 86F for up to 28 days and continue to work. However, an insulin product that has been altered for the purpose of dilution or by removal from the manufacturer’s original vial should be discarded within two weeks.

    There are many reasons power can be out for quite a while; weather, earthquake, equipment failure, etc. The point is that short term, less than a few days, without power should be able to be handled by individuals. If a catastrophe is going to happen if the power goes out for a few days there is a much bigger issue than space weather.

    PS. I see this as another misuse of a word to sensationalize a story. Space weather may cause local problems but not catastrophes.

  • Re:OMG 9 hour... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike (68054) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:38PM (#44270777)

    Nine hours was the relatively minor 1989 event. Something like the Carrington event could be much, much more damaging.

    Nine hours Is about the maximum duration and the Carrington event wasn't much longer than that. Once your part of the world rotates into the dark you are shielded from most of the the CME effects. (Not all, but the most damaging high energy flow is diverted around the earth).

    Further CMEs don't tend to last more than a couple days at worst. And they take 3 to 4 days to arrive, so people have time to unplug stuff, and even to de-energize and temporarily ground long transmission lines. Your local power company already knows where every manual disconnect switch is, and can have the local grid broken into small segments and de-energized in mere hours. Some of these are in cabinets in your neighborhood, and some are on power poles (long rod running to a locked lever arm near the ground).

    Long un-grounded transmission lines (or similar structures, even electric fences) are the most easily effected. But anything that is grounded periodically (every few miles) is not particularly affected. Nobody thought of this in the era of telegraph, but its built into every system these days with the possible exception of highpower transmission lines.

    Modern building wiring, with GFI and GFCI would probably all trip, preventing a lot of infrastructure damage, and if not, you've got 4 days to plan manual breaker tripping.

    These surges won't affect big pump motors as the story suggests, because 1) you know they are coming ahead of time, 2) its easy to disconnect the pump motors from the mains, and start your local diesel generators for the duration. The disconnect switch gear and the local generators are already built into critical infrastructure. Short runs between the backup generators and the pumps would not build up any induced currents.

    The story is a great deal of hyperventilating by people who don't really understand how infrastructure is built these days.

  • Re:Infrequent (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AthanasiusKircher (1333179) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @03:33PM (#44271087)

    Even if it had happened before the development of writing, you would think it would be the sort of thing that would have a major impact on legends across all world cultures. So my best guess is that from the span of time from, let's say, 3000BC to 2013AD, this has happened exactly once.

    Okay, first off, if we're talking about legends and mythology, there's enough ambiguity about all sorts of tales that have to do with sky phenomena or gods/heroes/whatever who interact with stuff in the sky that there could very well be accounts buried somewhere in those mythical stories... we just can't separate them out from all of the other weirdness.

    Even among Norse mythology [wikipedia.org], where you'd expect at least some significant discussion of aurora phenomena given where they lived, historians aren't even sure what -- if anything -- may be referencing auroras in those legends.

    And if we're talking about recorded history, there are a lot of "lights in the sky" kind of events, with Chinese records in particular going back thousands of years. Figuring out whether such things could be supernovas or comets or perhaps auroras is often not easy -- descriptions can be ambiguous. And events that were visible globally often weren't recorded with the same detail -- for example, the Chinese clearly record the apparently significant appearance in 1054 C.E. of the supernova that has led to the Crab Nebula, but I don't think anyone has found a clear reference to that in European astronomical records.

    In sum, whether we're talking about history or pre-history, there's plenty of stuff that went on up in the sky, and plenty of stories about it. But I don't think we can come anywhere close to saying for certain that no one observed unusual auroras or whatever due to some event like this in the entire history of civilization.

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