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Space Earth

How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe On Earth 212

Posted by Soulskill
from the call-ahead-before-dropping-by dept.
schwit1 writes: On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth's atmosphere. These plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), comprised a solar storm thought to be the most powerful in at least 150 years. "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado tells NASA. Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth. Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.

"Analysts believe that a direct hit could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps. ... According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion, or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair." Steve Tracton put it this way in his frightening overview of the risks of a severe solar storm: "The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general."
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How a Solar Storm Two Years Ago Nearly Caused a Catastrophe On Earth

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  • FUD filled.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lumpy (12016) on Friday July 25, 2014 @07:52AM (#47530197) Homepage

    " disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps"

    Every single water filtration plant has very large diesel generators that can run the place for months without electrical power. And no, a solar flare can not burn out giant motors and generators, all that can be ran easily without the SCADA system. In fact we used to run drills operating the place by hand, as most of the guys that did it from 1940 until 1990 did it mostly by hand.

    • by Cryacin (657549)
      The Transformers... E-M-P'd they died.
      • Re:FUD filled.... (Score:5, Informative)

        by Sockatume (732728) on Friday July 25, 2014 @08:42AM (#47530629)

        A solar storm isn't like a local EMP happening everywhere at once. It has a much lower intensity. It affects things like power grids is because they're spread over an enormous area, so the induced currents add up, but it won't even tickle systems that are disconnected from that grid.

      • by Lumpy (12016) on Friday July 25, 2014 @08:53AM (#47530739) Homepage

        Real transformers dont die from EMP unless it is a direct hit by a megatron.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The effect of a large CME impacting Earth isn't an EM _pulse_, it's more like a never-ending surge: the sustained driving of DC ground loop currents through transmission lines as the value of "ground" shifts along their length.

          If this CME had hit Earth, every part of the long-range grid that wasn't shut down and physically open circuit would've (a) biased connected and powered transformers into saturation, causing them to incinerate their windings and (b) driven enough current through connected unpowered tr

      • The Transformers... E-M-P'd they died.

        http://www.yousephtanha.com/bl... [yousephtanha.com]

    • Re:FUD filled.... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Ol Olsoc (1175323) on Friday July 25, 2014 @08:26AM (#47530485)

      And no, a solar flare can not burn out giant motors and generators, all that can be ran easily without the SCADA system. In fact we used to run drills operating the place by hand, as most of the guys that did it from 1940 until 1990 did it mostly by hand.

      You should research the Carrington event before you declare this all FUD

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... [wikipedia.org]

      In March 1989 much of Quebec lost power for the same thing.

      Related are EMP pulses. We can make these ourselves. The Starfish prime and Soviet Project K tests got some old school electrical equipment all goofed up.

      In short, huge induced currents in places where they shouldn't be can knock out the old school equipment - it just takes a big enough event. The little, more sensitive stuff we use today? Maybe we should look at it as a huge job creation plan fixing/replacing all the stuff that gets broken.

      • The question becomes: how many people would die unnecessarily before we could recover, and how much of our annual GDP would it cost to perform the recovery?

        Someone in the US energy department, at the very least, almost certainly has rough estimates of those questions, don't you think?

        • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

          The question becomes: how many people would die unnecessarily before we could recover, and how much of our annual GDP would it cost to perform the recovery?

          Someone in the US energy department, at the very least, almost certainly has rough estimates of those questions, don't you think?

          No doubt. As much as I might joke about job stimulus, it would be an awful situation. Almost like the worst case Y2K scenarios. But no doubt there are a lot of people who just won't believe it is possible. Can't see it, so it isn't there. So we'll just sit back and watch what happens.

      • As the Quebec outage was one of the only effects of that particular event, while most other power systems were unfazed, and as much was learned from that even and changes made both in the Quebec system and pretty much all transmission systems to limit vulnerability, I would point to that event as a reason not to worry.
      • Hardened electronics (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, we know how to make hardened electronics, and we do make them.

        But it does NOT come cheap, you have to add a number of protection (clamp) diodes to *EVERY SINGLE GATE* inside integrated circuits, for example. You've read that right: on a modern microprocessor, that's close to a billion extra diodes at the very least. These not only take up die space, they also cause other nasty issues re. signal integrity and low-voltage operation, especially at very high frequencies. Any interconects have to be

        • From what I understand of the effects of solar flare, there's no point in hardening electronics against them as the effects caused in short conductor runs are minimal. It affects power grids because of the length of conductors involved. Regular surge protection will protect plugged-in electronics against secondary effects on the grid.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Cardoor (3488091)
      im no expert on the topic (far from it) but im inclined to think the issue is less of water filtration plants working and more of 'last mile' connectivity. Here in NYC when we had the blackout (was is 02? 03?) my at the time fairly upscale apartment building in manhattan lost running water and flushing toilets as the pumps had no juice.
    • by Shompol (1690084)
      All of lower Manhattan (south of 34th St) could not flush toilet for two weeks after an explosion at local power station (due to hurricane Sandy). Where have you been with your "large diesel generators"?
    • by wcrowe (94389)

      You make a good point. However, just playing devil's advocate here, your generators will only run so long as you can keep them supplied with diesel fuel. If the transportation and distribution system that the pipelines and trucks rely on to get the fuel from point a to point b is disrupted, you may have trouble keeping those generators running.

      Most disaster preparedness is built on the assumption that help will arrive from the outside. But when EVERYWHERE is affected, help may not be available.

      Neverthele

      • by Osgeld (1900440)

        I dont know about his area but here they are supplied by natural gas

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          I dont know about his area but here they are supplied by natural gas

          Which, one assumes, also relies on pumps.

          I doubt natural gas gets from point a to point b by magic.

          • I doubt natural gas gets from point a to point b by magic.

            Natural gas is generally pumped around by turbines burning natural gas, it's cheaper but also happens to be immune to electrical problems. Failure of controls cause valves to stick in their last commanded position though so expect at least some problems with pressure fluctuations, etc.

    • As someone that works on engines all the time... the rule is:
      You need Air, Fuel and Spark
      All engines have electrical systems and depending on how complex (efficient) the engine is the electronics can be as minor as a magnet and magneto all the way up to vastly complex computer controlled ignition systems.

      But more importantly, neatly all the valves in those plants are controlled by electricity. So losing power would be a problem if it weren't fixed fairly soon.

      • Re:FUD filled.... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Lumpy (12016) on Friday July 25, 2014 @09:33AM (#47531099) Homepage

        "You need Air, Fuel and Spark"

        You must not work on many engines then....

        Diesel does not need spark.

        "but more importantly, neatly all the valves in those plants are controlled by electricity. " And they have geared handwheels on them for emergency backup.. Have you ever been in a Water filtration plant? I worked in one for over 7 years, during that time I had to operate the whole place by myself during two extended power outages, one actually blew up the main transformers on the premise and melted the 7200 volt power lines coming in to run our 350hp electric motors. I had a very hectic 30 minutes to run the 1/2 mile to the other end of the facility during a major thunderstorm to start the generators manually as we did not have auto start back then. Then run all the way back and manually close 4 60" gate valves by hand to shut down half of the water plant as water consumption dropped way down as most of the town was out of power. By the time the emergency response guys showed up and I opened the gates I had the 500,000 Gallon per day pumps running and the water towers in the city above a 75% full point.

        What is fun is when you are in a pumphouse and the check valve fails and a 350hp motor is running backwards at full speed and someone does not answer the radio up at the control house and hits START on that motor. the smell of vaporized copper and ozone in the air when the breaker arms exploded and vaporized because 7200 volts at insane amps met a motor running backwards and acting like a direct short. My ears were ringing for a week.

        • by rubycodez (864176)

          my cousin worked in one for years, they even had wall of 1930s knife switches in roped off area , and motor generators with open shafts where you could see the blur of the couplings....no idea if they've upgraded in the past two decades but I suspect solar flare not going to take out most the gear in my hometown's filtration and pumping plant. of course, in emergency the biggest concerns while running around would be either electrocution or getting snagged and chopped into hamburger.

      • You haven't worked with Diesel, have you? You know, the engines where ignition is facilitated solely by compression instead of compression and a spark plug? You know... like this [howstuffworks.com]?
        • Depends on the size of the Diesel engine, you know? No you don't it seems ...
          Car Diesel engines have a "glowing plug" similar to a spark plug, that is heated up shortly before ignition to give the final 'spark'.
          I would bet even 500hp Diesels in trucks have a "glowing plug".

          However for really big Diesel engines or suitable optimized small ones, they are completely self igniting.

          • The glow plug is not even close to similar to a spark plug as it does not go inside the compression chamber and it is not absolutely required for the facilitation of ignition; even on a stone cold engine in Canada in the depths of winter (provided there's at least a block warmer of some kind). It's a wire that preheats the fuel in the injector to ensure that it's of a temperature that when it is injected into the cylinder that the pressure and heat within the compression chamber will cause the ignition. O

    • Re:FUD filled.... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by tlhIngan (30335) <[ten.frow] [ta] [todhsals]> on Friday July 25, 2014 @11:03AM (#47531941)

      A CME is not an EMP event.

      CME are dangerous because the stream of charged particles interacts with Earth's magnetosphere. The interaction causes the magnetic field to vary, and the changing magnetic field as everyone knows results in induced currents. Earth's magnetic field is weak, but the charged particles cause it to vary, and because of the variance, long lines (like power transmission lines) are the ones most affected.

      Or telegraph lines, where the operators suddenly get shocked when the induced currents cause a large potential difference to build up (voltages of 50+V during the Carrington event).

      Now, the problem is that the grid has enough circuit breakers to actually handle this - they're sensitive enough that disruptions will cause them to open. The issue is that once you start having grids, loads and generators islanding themselves, it causes further disruption down the line. Like the blackout of 2003 where one power generating plant caused the whole east coast to lose power for 3 days.

      Having the grid shut down - it might actually be difficult to restart it since it's never happened before.

  • Known this forever (Score:3, Insightful)

    by koan (80826) on Friday July 25, 2014 @08:07AM (#47530305)

    And yet nothing changes, there is no hardening of infrastructure, no preparation or planning.

    • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

      And yet nothing changes, there is no hardening of infrastructure, no preparation or planning.

      Most people just don't believe it's possible. Smart people can put two and two together, but most of us won't think a thing about it until their smartphones quit working and they can't access Facebook.

      Even then, they'll likely assign it to something political like the Illuminati taking over, and disabling all the electronics so they can put everyone in FEMA concentration camps.

      Goddamned liberals anyway! >sarcasm

    • by es330td (964170)
      While I can see a need for putting together and rehearsing a plan for "after" I would like to see the cost-benefit analysis on hardening the infrastructure. There are a lot of things we *could* do in life, like making planes more protected from missile damage we don't do because the likelihood of the event being protected against is so low relative to the aggregate cost to implement said solution. Are we prepared to build EMP shielding into every electronic device, thereby increasing the cost of life in gen
    • by Nimey (114278)

      But then we'd have to RAISE TAXES (horrors!) to pay for it.

  • USA USA (Score:5, Funny)

    by Cardoor (3488091) on Friday July 25, 2014 @08:11AM (#47530347)
    The sun is clearly a terrorist. I also hear it harbors vast quantities of cheap energy sources. time to INVADE!!! CHARGE!!!
    • by Immerman (2627577)

      Can we get the politicians to lead the charge?

      • by Cardoor (3488091)
        sadly, as usual, though they would LIKE to lead from the front, they need to stay behind and manage from the rear. it's a tough job, but it beats real work.
  • It happened before (Score:5, Informative)

    by Guspaz (556486) on Friday July 25, 2014 @08:12AM (#47530353)

    In the 80s, Quebec's power grid got taken out by solar storms. It was particularly susceptible because we have a ton of really long-distance runs:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    That one was just bad enough to flip circuit breakers on the grid, but it still caused a 9 hour power outage. Some satellites also lost control.

    • by PineHall (206441)
      The solar storm of 1859 [wikipedia.org], also known as the Carrington Event, wrecked havoc telegraph systems. This solar storm would have been very nasty if it happened today with all our electronics. This storm 2 years ago would have been of similar size if it had hit earth.
    • It was serendipitous that Quebec did get hit by that to. Afterwards they put in a lot of newer systems in case of a repeat event,
      which occurred on 2003 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003) caused by a software bug. Anyone in Quebec and to the east of them weren't affected.
  • Desensitization. Plausible explanation for when they turn everything off on purpose.
  • by tekrat (242117)

    Yes, for 6 months the world would have been thrown into chaos. Millions might have even died. But we would have emerged from it stronger and more united as a planet. Imagine just in the USA.

    Would Ted Cruz have shut down the government to protest Obamacare after having lived through an event like that? Do you think the Republicans would be global warming deniers if they had gone through an event where the sun struck back at earth and nearly destroyed us?

    Suddenly american politics wouldn't be about immigratio

    • In the USA you had 'you loot, we shoot' signs everywhere regardless if displaced 'owners' in 'you neighbouhood' had any use for the looted stuff.
      Most people would not die to the 'event' but to self proclaimed gun swinging warlords picking up the remaining pieces for them selves.
      See the wide documented footage of New Orleans after Kathrina ...

    • by Nimey (114278)

      Spot the idiot who doesn't have any chronic medical conditions that are a death sentence without a steady supply of medicine, and who's wearing rose-colored glasses about human nature.

    • Do you think the Republicans would be global warming deniers if they had gone through an event where the sun struck back at earth and nearly destroyed us?

      Bro, this sort of reasoning is exactly why we have global warming deniers.
      We can cut C02 emissions all we want and it's going to do nothing to stop an event like this from wiping us out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... [wikipedia.org]

  • FUD alert (Score:4, Informative)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Friday July 25, 2014 @09:08AM (#47530895) Journal

    "Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps. "

    Um, no.
    First, the normal flush pressure comes from the water tank on the back...so EVERYONE would be able to flush at least once. (Actually, in a disaster, that tank isn't a bad source of freshwater, at least for a while.)

    Most communities have water tanks above their population, either on a nearby height, or in water towers. This makes the system - at least in the short term, until that tank is drained - impervious to power outage. Even NYC has tens of thousands of rooftop tanks with the same function, but on a per-building level.
    GRAVITY, not electricity, produces water pressure that refills that local toilet tank. So until the community tank is emptied, and electric pumps are required to fill that large tank, everyone would be able to flush just fine.

    http://www.howstuffworks.com/w... [howstuffworks.com]

  • Don't get caught unaware by the next major CME. Read the space weather forecast [noaa.gov] from NOAA.

  • Why don't we harden the electrical grid for this? What technologies could be used to protect electrical systems from this? Maybe this would involve a system to suppress the surge but also a system of disconnect switches that could be remotely activated to disconnect the electrical grid? What sorts of systems could be installed to prevent such a catastrophe? Could we install disconnect switches around transformers and such? What about unplugging your household appliances and electronics? Would that protect t

    • by rubycodez (864176)

      shunting devices could be installed, and monitoring satellites specifically intended to give 30 to 45 minute lead time warning to grid operators to shut down

  • by jratcliffe (208809) on Friday July 25, 2014 @09:50AM (#47531245)

    Bunch of astrophysicists walk into a bar. First one orders a gin and tonic, and gets it. Second one orders a red wine, and gets it. Third one orders a Mexican beer, at which point the bartender yells "all right, that's it, everybody out!" Another bar customer asks the first astrophysicist "what's going on?" He responds "Coronal mass ejection."

  • by Dr. Tom (23206) <tomh@nih.gov> on Friday July 25, 2014 @09:55AM (#47531295) Homepage

    I expect Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks, Uma Thurman, and Cameron Diaz (with cameos by Dolly Parton and Emma Watson) to make a movie about this immediately. "The Corona"

  • by MindPrison (864299) on Friday July 25, 2014 @10:10AM (#47531445) Journal
    Ah, bet you're thinking - what an asshat, right?!

    No, see - the thing about such natural disasters is that they tend to bring out the best in us, sometimes we need a crisis like that when we're too spoiled and too set in our ways to help fellow man (or nature) out, history shows that these disasters often bring out the better in us and replenish life and give jobs and hopes to those who have none.

    It will also serve as a reminder that will be remembered for decades - how vulnerable we are, and that we should prepare and stop taking everyday life for granted.
    • by captjc (453680)

      If by "brings out the best in us" you mean a "huge wave of crime, vandalism, and looting because the po-po can't do shiat", then you are correct.

  • Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps

    Correction: they'd be able to flush once. Make it count!

  • by Walking The Walk (1003312) on Friday July 25, 2014 @11:31AM (#47532251)
    I don't see what the fuss is about. The odds of being hit by a CME have to be quite low. Let's work it out together:
    1. To make the math simple, let's first assume CMEs can be fired in any direction.
    2. For a CME to hit the Earth, it has to occupy the same space as us at the same time.
    3. The Earth is approx 1 AU from the sun at any given time; so to hit the Earth, the CME has to hit a particular spot on a sphere of space 1 AU in radius.
    4. So the probability of a given CME hitting Earth is approximately equivalent to the ratio of half the Earth's surface area (since only half faces the Sun at a time) to the surface area of a sphere with a radius of 1 AU.

    Google says:

    1. 1 AU = 149,597,871 km
    2. Surface area of a sphere is 4*pi*r^2, so our orbital sphere has an area of approx 2.8 x 10^17 km^2.
    3. Surface area of the Earth = 510,072,000 km^2, or 5.1 x 10^8 km^2

    Therefore the probability of being hit by a given CME is (2.8 x 10^17) / (5.1 x 10^8) = 5.5 x 10^-8, or a 0.0000055% chance.

    Now the number of CMEs per year is actually higher than I expected, which I suppose explains why we do in fact get hit between 0 - 70 times per year. However the number of annual large CMEs is quite low, with none of the sites I visited actually agreeing on the number (most seemed to agree it's less than 5 per year in a solar maximum.) Let's say there are 5 per year. That only brings the chance of being hit by one of them up to 0.000028% per year. So if I live to be 100, the chances I'll see one in my lifetime are only 0.0028%.

    caveat: These calculations ignore CME cross-section (essentially width and height) and duration (essentially length), since I couldn't find any accurate information on those. If you find those, you can factor them into these calculations by multiplying by the cross-section, multiplying by the % duration that the CME's strength is high, and multipyling by the Earth's average orbital velocity. That will modify the probility to take into account the volume of space the Earth occupies while the CME is traversing the edge of our 1 AU sphere, and how much of the surface of the sphere is touched by the CME.

    • While I agree the probability is low as compared to how the gloom-and-doomer portray it, I can immediately see a few major issues with your analysis.

      1) The CME doesn't have to directly hit the Earth since disrupting the magnetosphere [wikipedia.org], which is many times the size of just the Earth, is what would be required.

      2) I don't believe CMEs are uniform in the direction they occur since they are created by anomalies in the Sun's magnetic field, which like the Earth's, has poles. I could not however readily find a
    • CMEs are hitting the earth 'all the time'.
      Luckily only 3 times the previous 200 years. No idea what you want to point out with your 'math'.
      The problem is not how often they happen or how likely they are, the problem is the massive impact they would have on our modern infrastructure and society if it would happen right now.

The use of anthropomorphic terminology when dealing with computing systems is a symptom of professional immaturity. -- Edsger Dijkstra

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