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Earth Barely Dodged Solar Blast In 2012 202

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the close-call dept.
Rambo Tribble (1273454) writes "Coronal mass ejections, with severity comparable to the 1859 Carrington event, missed Earth by only 9 days in 2012, according to researchers. The Carrington event caused widespread damage to the telegraph system in the U.S., and a similar occurrence would be devastating to modern electronics, it is thought. From the Reuters article, 'Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous.' The potential global cost for such damage is pegged at $2.6 trillion."

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Earth Barely Dodged Solar Blast In 2012

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  • Huh? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 20, 2014 @01:17PM (#46535991)

    "Coronal mass ejections, with in 2012, according to researchers."

    What..

  • We had no control over this, and there's no means to mitigate it, and it didn't happen. So lets panic and blog and post video submissions to nerdy websites!

    • by TWX (665546)
      I have a way to mitigate it, at least to an extent. I have a car with a points-type distributor in my garage to drive around if the electronic ignition controls in the other cars are roasted...

      Maybe I should put a couple of fresh '70s-era ECUs into the safe, just to electrically isolate them, so I'll have more than one functional car...
      • I thought that merely disconnecting equipment from large surface wire loops (a.k.a. long cables) should help in many cases? It's not like the charged particles travel at the speed of light toward Earth, there's time to do that.
        • by Feyshtey (1523799)
          If the energy surge is traveling through space to hit power transformers, what makes you think its not traveling through space to hit every electronic device on the planet? It's not like things are damaged because that energy is traveling through our electric grid....
          • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @02:53PM (#46537037)
            Because it's not a random "energy surge", it's a cloud of charged particles. It won't travel through the atmosphere to destroy your electronics, it will need the geomagnetic field to do its dirty job. It's precisely because the energy gets converted into current in large looped conductors why things get damaged. Such as - you get it - the power grid. Or metallic telecommunications, for that matter.
        • by cusco (717999) <brian.bixby@gmai l . c om> on Thursday March 20, 2014 @02:38PM (#46536873)

          The problem is not so much end-user equipment, although that alone would be pretty devastating to most people. The real problem is the destruction of the electrical grid that would result. Most of the large transformers and relays are custom-made one-off pieces, and backorder time for them under normal circumstances is 3 months to 2 years. There are no procedures available to collapse the grid in preparation to a CME to protect that equipment, it's really not doable at this point. Imagine most of North America without electricity for a series of months. Electricity is used to pump natural gas around the country, so most of that's unavailable. Electricity is used in gas pumps, so even if your car still works you have no fuel for it. Farmers have the fuel in their tanks, but after that their tractors are going to be parked for the duration. Many railroad switches can no longer be thrown by hand and schedules are all computerized, so big chunks of the rail network are going to be down. Most hospitals have 3 days of fuel for their generators, beyond that they're back to doing surgery by candlelight.

          The repercussions are enormous.

          • I hope that one of the repercussions will be that such procedures will get established. I mean, the generals playing with their tin soldiers are preparing for all sorts of crazy emergency scenarios, why not get prepared for things we know that actually happen in nature quite regularly?
            • by cusco (717999) <brian.bixby@gmai l . c om> on Thursday March 20, 2014 @03:29PM (#46537387)

              Probably because the electrical grid is controlled by for-profit corporations run by executives hyper-focused on short-term revenue to get their next bonus.

              • by hsmith (818216)
                Yeah, because politicians have real long term goals, you know with having to get elected ever 2-6 years. They really plan for the future. rofl
            • by galloog1 (3433335) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @04:20PM (#46537821)
              One of the potential scenarios the US military does prepare for is loss of power to our power grid due to cyber attack so they are prepared. The US military partly exists for disaster response and there are several commands dedicated to it. Provided their already shielded equipment isn't taken out, they could have lines of communications established for government in a matter of days. They would most likely be given priority for resources if everything were wiped out and their ability to adapt to equipment issues both on the power generation and communications side is actually quite impressive. Source: I lead tin communications Soldiers. While other people dream of zombie attacks, I dream of kinetic cyber attacks.
          • Does this mean they will extend the ACA deadline?

          • by asylumx (881307) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @03:51PM (#46537567)

            The real problem is the destruction of the electrical grid that would result.

            Um, also satellites, which power much of our communications and have also caused most of us to throw away paper maps.

          • by quenda (644621)

            Most hospitals have 3 days of fuel for their generators, beyond that they're back to doing surgery by candlelight.

            Unlike Fukushima, the roads will be open for trucks to deliver fuel for backup generators to hospitals, pumping stations, and other vital infrastructure.
            People will get by in the short run, but I'd be very scared of the global economic impact.

          • by nbritton (823086)

            Since a gas station would have gas, all they would need is a generator to keep the station running. Tanker trucks shouldn't be affected by CMEs, so with generators being readily available I don't foresee this as being a significant problem.

            What I do foresee is an economic melt down since electronic transactions would grind to a halt. There would be a run on the banks since there is not enough cash reserves on hand, only $1.22 trillion dollars in Federal Reserve notes are in circulation. Businesses would not

      • Crank away on that points-equipped car -- the ignition coil will be fried, and so will the copper windings in the starter and altern/generator.

        There were no solid-state chips then, and, still, unconnected telegraph receivers were tapping away receiving imaginary messages from the ZOMG to earth.

        • by fnj (64210) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @02:04PM (#46536501)

          Crank away on that points-equipped car -- the ignition coil will be fried, and so will the copper windings in the starter and altern/generator.

          There were no solid-state chips then, and, still, unconnected telegraph receivers were tapping away receiving imaginary messages from the ZOMG to earth.

          Think. I know it's hard, but try it. We're not talking about magic here. The car does not have an antenna hundreds of km to over a thousand km long. Electric fields are measured in volts per meter, not volts per fairy tale.

          Inducing a 20 mA current in a telegraph line hundreds of km long (which is all it takes to "tap away") is slightly different from inducing tens to hundreds of thousands of amps for tens of seconds to minutes. That's what it would take to "fry" the windings in a starter or alternator. And the antenna length of the wiring attached to the starter or alternator is no more than a couple of meters, INSIDE a faraday cage.

          An ignition coil would take less current to burn out than a starter or alternator, but still a whole hell of a lot more current than it would ever see inside the faraday cage of the car body.

          • by bigpat (158134)

            Electric fields are measured in volts per meter, not volts per fairy tale.

            Damn. I knew I was doing something wrong in my E&M class.

          • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

            Think. I know it's hard, but try it. We're not talking about magic here. The car does not have an antenna hundreds of km to over a thousand km long.

            Finally, the smartest person on th internet. Explain how hundreds of Kilometers is needed to induce a current.

            What is the resonant frequency of your hundreds of kilometers? What is the resonant frequency of a smaller antenna. What is the frequency of the EM event. Is it only Seriously dude, you really need to stop calling people stupid while you spout completely wrong and stupid incorrect stuff.

            Come back after a little study. You might start by going ot Wikipedia and finding out why we stopped doing space based nuc blasts. It's not just the hundred plus kilometer systems that are affected.

          • And the antenna length of the wiring attached to the starter or alternator is no more than a couple of meters, INSIDE a faraday cage.

            Nope, all the wiring in the stator and rotor of the starter or alternator serves as an antenna as well. As is the metal case of either. As is the adjacent engine block.

            That's what makes high levels of EMP so difficult to shield against in the real world - literally everything conductive serves as an "antenna" (even if it's not "antenna shaped"). Even stuff adjacent but not

      • by Feyshtey (1523799)
        Better include a bunch of fuel tanks at your home that use a hand pump. Because you're not filling your car from the gas stations (which have a chip-based control system).
    • by Twinbee (767046)
      Let's not try to get Mars either as all the previous giant asteroids never wiped us out.
    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @01:38PM (#46536259)
      1. Knowing something is possible is better than not knowing
      2. We can't mitigate it? Turn in your nerd card right this instant
      3. Who is panicking?
      4. You'd rather this get submitted to some non-nerd website? I agree that seeing grandmothers starting to wear tinfoil hats to avoid solar flare problems might be really really funny, but this is exactly the type of submission for slashdot and vice versa.
      5. I find your sig ironic in this context.
      • by bitt3n (941736)

        1. Knowing something is possible is better than not knowing

        spoken like a man who's never managed to get his balls sucked into a dustbuster

        • by Golddess (1361003)
          No, he's still right. Wouldn't you have liked to know that such a thing was possible before you attempted it? ;)
    • by Bengie (1121981) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @02:04PM (#46536507)
      My understanding, which could be wrong or incomplete, is that the ions would cause a tremendous surge of DC current to be conducted into our power-lines, causing transformers to be melted. This can simply be shunted, but we need to invest a few hundred mil to protect from a few tril of damage. No one wants to be the guy that spent more money, so no one invests into this simple and quite effective protection.
      • the easiest solution is simply disconnecting the transformers when a CMP is coming.

        But that requires a number of satellites in orbit around the Sun (not Earth)...and that backs up you're money point...sigh
        • by Shatrat (855151)

          Does it require that? Can't we just point a telescope at it? They saw this coming in 1859, even if they didn't know what it was.

        • by omnichad (1198475)

          It does not require satellites around the sun. You get days of notice, because light travels faster than matter. We see CME's before they do any damage.

          What we need is a way to actually disconnect the transformers. I don't think that was built into the grid and would require too many man-hours to do manually in time.

          • I figure since we already have [nasa.gov] them orbiting the sun to tell us about these things, it's probably reasonable to assume that's the most efficient way to do it.

            You also need one directly between us and the Sun because we need to know the polarity of the CME. I forgot which way it is but it's either if it's opposite our magnetic field then it's harmless or if it's the same it's harmless. So we need to know that before shutting down the entire power grid...a telescope (light) isn't going to tell you that.
          • Yes, we can actually physically disconnect the transformers- that's what circuit breakers do- and pretty much, they're automated- given the warnings that the satellites give, I suspect that a Carrington event sized CME, at least for modern systems (like in the US) won't be a surprise and can be accommodated- maybe taking significant time to switch everything back on, but without major damage to the infrastructure.

    • There are plenty of ways to mitigate this. Satellites are built with safeguards to prevent this exact problem. However, they aren't functional in 'protected' mode so you need to be very careful when you turn them off. i.e. you don't want to do it unless you absolutely positively have to do it.

      With satellite's monitoring the Sun we can see when these things are coming hours ahead of time - they don't travel at light speed. That gives us plenty of warning to set things into protected mode.

      Same goes fo
    • by arvindsg (1757328)
      Decades into the future such a ejection will prove as turning point in our war against machines
    • by sjames (1099)

      There are several ways to mitigate it, but we haven't implemented them because they mighjt cost money.

      We need to bolster our electrical grid and better distribute generation. Ideally it should be feasible to split it into smaller regional and local grids whenever there is a threat so the long lines don't cause problems.

      There are a number of very large transformers involved. We have no backups and it would take months to get even a single new one built. We would have to order from somewhere else since we don

  • Considering how dependent we are to things that require electricity, perhaps we are lucky we squeaked by...

    However, there will always be this threat It is just the nature of the universe. Perhaps it would be wise to consider ways to mitigate or minimumize damage done if such an event happened again. Yeah, it'd be costly to do. However, it certainly would beat the lives lost and damage done if doing the usual "Wait till it happens and then run around like a chicken with their head cut off while pointing
    • by cusco (717999)

      The problem is that the electrical grid is run by for-profit corporations lead by executives hyper-focused on short-term profits. I unfortunately don't see any likelihood of remediation efforts ever being put into place.

  • Dodged? (Score:5, Funny)

    by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @01:31PM (#46536161) Homepage

    Yeah, I know, I'm being a bit picky here, but... dodged?

    The CME barely missed; Earth didn't do anything, the lazy git.

  • I'm fairly certain in either 2012 or 2013 we did get hit by a significant CME that was enough to cause extremely southern northern lights in the sky. They said days before that it would knock out satellites and it never did. It didn't affect the electrical grid either. So are they saying there was a bigger one that missed us?
  • by imroy (755) <imroykun@gmail.com> on Thursday March 20, 2014 @01:46PM (#46536343) Homepage Journal

    Quoth the intro:

    Coronal mass ejections, with in 2012, according to researchers.

    Someone screwed up copying the text there.

  • by Lorens (597774) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @01:56PM (#46536431) Journal

    "Coronal mass ejections, with in 2012, according to researchers.

    Yea, researchers for the win. According to grammar researchers (with in 2014), no verbs in this sentence either!

    • by jc42 (318812)

      Yea, researchers for the win. According to grammar researchers (with in 2014), no verbs in this sentence either!

      Yeah, but you violated another well-known of grammer's rules: Don't use commas, which aren't needed.

      • A preposition is one thing a sentence should never end in.

        Never in a million years, even if your life depended on it engage in exaggerations.

        Don't be tautologically repetitive by repeating the same thing again and again.

        Forswear grandiloquence.

  • I'm sure this is very naive. I'm not doubting, or even skeptical, I just want further understanding.

    These claims are always made but never really expand on what the repercussions are. What exactly does it mean that things would be devastating to our modern electronics? Cell phones blowing up in our pants pocket? Computers catching on fire? I doubt those things mainly because something damaging enough to cause a gadget to self-immolate likely would be just as damaging to our biology. Is it stuff as (comparat

    • by Feyshtey (1523799)
      The ramification would be that most devices with microchips would cease to function. And in today's world that's everything from cellphones, to cars, to refrigerators and the kitchen sink (literally, if it has a motion sensor to start the flow of water). The intense energy would essentially melt the circuitry in the chips, and maybe wiring in the device as well, if it were thin enough wires. It might short out and cause a fire or something. But you wont give a shit about a burn on your ass from the phone t
    • by TheCarp (96830)

      These claims are always made but never really expand on what the repercussions are. What exactly does it mean that things would be devastating to our modern electronics?

      I was iffy on this myself, so I read slashdot comments. Now it is crystal clear.

      In the event of a major CME, just mains power, or possibly anything connected to mains power, would or would not be inoperable. Modern cars, and or, old cars would or would not work; as they may or may not be effected by EMPs which may or may not have similar eff

    • by cusco (717999)

      Think of the Untied States trying to exist with 19th century technology for a couple of months. That's how bad it could be. The big equipment that runs the electrical grid is all custom made by a very few manufacturers with very long (as much as two years) backorder times in the best of conditions. End-user equipment may or may not be affected, but without power it's pretty much useless. Your car may run, but since the gasoline pumps are electric, as is all the equipment that runs the holding tanks, the

  • The summary says "From the Reuters article", but none of the links point to a story by Reuters. The links go to Nature, Wikipedia and UC Berkeley. The Berkeley article one doesn't mention Reuters; the Nature paper is paywalled, I can't check it's sources without forking over $32, but I would doubt it would rely on a news report as a source.
    • by Soulskill (1459) Works for Slashdot

      The link was broken and not separated from the Nature link. I've updated it with different anchor text to make it more distinct.

  • "Coronal mass ejections, with in 2012, according to researchers."

    My hovercraft is full of eels.

    • by ghmh (73679)

      Turn left at the next set of lights, then pull over and replace your scratched tobbacconist.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @03:50PM (#46537559) Journal
    Everyday I walk across a bridge built 120 years ago to carry horse and buggy traffic at 5 mph. Today it carries four lanes of traffic with city buses and 18 wheelers at some 40 mph. Would anyone even think of building something with this level of "over specification" or "over building"? Is it any wonder bridges hardly 40 years old designed to carry 18 wheelers at 65 mph are falling apart?

    Sometime back some small solar wind even knocked out a satellite. Normally it would not even be a blip in the radar. But that satellite was the link to credit card processing in the pay-at-the pump gas stations. Almost all these gas stations have cut down their employee down to one guy who sells chips and soda. Almost all the bays are self service. When the pay at the pump payment system got knocked out, people had to fill the car and walk in to pay that lone guy. Lines started forming, then the lines stretched, and reached the exit ramps of highways, and the highway started getting blocked. But at the end, after the mess cleared, still there is no incentive to create alternate routing or redundancy in the system.

    It costs money to make things secure. To make things robust. But if some company does it the right way and it competes with another company that does not, it is not going to be competitive. Yes, in the long run, catastrophe will strike and the chickens will come home to roost and the corner cutters would find themselves getting the short end of the stick. But, the non-corner-cutter could have been driven out of business before the catastrophe strikes.

    So it all depends on the frequency of the odd ball event. If the odd ball event is less frequent than once in a decade, there is no structural incentive for any manager to do the right thing. Most people change jobs once a decade and they will not be there to face the music. This is a systemic structural thing. The race to the bottom is the only race there is.

    It might not be a solar storm, or a terrestrial storm. It could be some fiber optic cable being accidentally severed. Or sabotaged. Or an oil spill blocks rail traffic somewhere. So don't think it is mere fear mongering or rationalize it saying solar storms are rare. Systematically our infrastructure has become very vulnerable without redundancy without factors of safety.

  • by DarthVain (724186)

    Duh...

    I harden all my electronics against electromagnetic radiation using tinfoil!

    For extra sensitive systems I use the heavy duty stuff,,, It also works better in the BBQ!

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