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When Space Weather Attacks Earth 176

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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  • Infrequent (Score:4, Informative)

    by NonSequor ( 230139 ) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @01:52PM (#44270509) Journal

    The Carrington Event caused aurora borealis to be visible around the world. I'm not aware of anything else like that being reported in recorded human history. 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.

    Wikipedia says that ice core studies show that events like this which produce high energy protons comparable to the Carrington Event occur with a frequency of roughly once every 500 years, however it briefly mentions that these other events aren't necessarily comparable in terms of geomagnetic impact.

    • Re:Infrequent (Score:5, Insightful)

      by VitaminB52 ( 550802 ) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:24PM (#44270685) Journal
      'Once every 500 years' is not equal to 'with 500 years interval'. The next Carrington Event could be tomorrow.

      Worse, even events less powerful than the Carrington Event occur more frequently than the Carrington Event and can cause significant damage to our high voltage infrastructure.

      • The next Carrington Event could be tomorrow.

        No it can't, sorry.

        NOAA forecasters estimate a 40% chance of polar geomagnetic storms on July 13th when a CME is expected to hit Earth's magnetic field. Computer models of the incoming CME anticipate a sharp increase in solar wind plasma density around the time of the crossing. This could spark bright auroras at high latitudes.

        Sorry, there were no ejections in our direction three-four days ago, much less direct on of higher intensity that will hit tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that.

        Granted, a

    • Scientists have a pretty good estimate for how common Supernovas are, but that number does not match well with how many were reported in history. We know that the Chinese observed at least one supernova that nobody in Europe bothered to write down. There's evidence suggesting that a lot of the 'plague of this, plague of that' events in Exodus are concurrent with a massive volcanic eruption on the isle of Santorini and that the Egyptians were, at the very least, informed about this eruption by traders, but i

      • by khallow ( 566160 )

        Yes, you would think somebody should have recorded an event like the Carrington auroras, but we do have examples where a large and well developed culture seems to have just stuck their fingers in their ears and ignored the whole plague of miracles/mind-numbing-problem/disaster/end of the world/whatever till it went away.

        Or a subsequent pharaoh scrubbed that record clean because it wasn't his plagues and miracles.

    • 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 [], 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.

      • Joshua 10:13

        So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.

        It is not impossible that oral tradition changes an event where it was bright enough to read at night into an event where the sun was shining all night.

        • Hmm. Possibly a supernova event, somewhat nearby (astronomically speaking, where nearby could be pretty far out)? The amount of radiation that would put out could light up the sky for some time. And it's not like people of that age had the equipment (solar filter) to look directly at the sun...the earth would continue rotating, as it usually does, but the continued light in the heavens would convince an earlier peoples that the sun must still be directly above them, because all light comes from the sun, or

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      So, based on conjecture it was a unique event, but you then say that based on actual science it is a 500 year event, so why bother with the conjecture at all?

      At the time of the Carrington event there were various tribes that weren't in contact with the modern world, but are now. How many of them have a legend or belief based on the Carrington event? I am aware of none but would be interested if there are any you know of.

  • Fuses (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iamacat ( 583406 ) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:10PM (#44270603)

    Or we could start protecting our central power infrastructure the same way most homes are protected - by having it switch off rather than blow up when overloaded for any reason.

    • by sphealey ( 2855 )

      Brilliant! Why haven't the grid operators thought of that one?!?


      Of course, large power transformers can be damaged by electromagnetic storms even when fully disconnected from the grid...

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by fnj ( 64210 )

        Of course, large power transformers can be damaged by electromagnetic storms even when fully disconnected from the grid...


  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:13PM (#44270619) Homepage

    The last time someone got wound up about this on Slashdot []. And, last time around, I linked the PJM power grid training document on geo-magnetic disturbances. [] They know about the Carrington Event. They know all about the problem in 1989, which happened on their system and damaged some transformers.

    The problem shows up as DC current on long AC lines, because voltage at "ground" differs across points hundreds of miles apart. This can damage transformers. So they have DC current monitoring in place at some key points on their system. Corrective action is taken when "DC measurement of 10 amps or greater measured at Missouri Avenue in Atlantic City and/or Meadow Brook Station near Winchester Virginia". Some long-distance lines have to operate at reduced capacity. Some generating plants are told to reduce output. Others have to crank up to compensate.

    Medium sized disturbances of this type happen a few times a year (more at the high point of the sunspot cycle). Only one warning so far this year, on June 29th. April 11, 2010 was the most recent disturbance event that required that action be taken. The warning came in from NOAA's Space Weather Center, and people in power grid control centers (the US has seven) reconfigured the power grid to prepare for it.

  • 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?

    • by khallow ( 566160 )

      What type of conceptual solutions could be used to protect the whole planet instead of just small patches of people?

      Lots of spare parts. Make a grid that can shut down safely under the loading from such solar flares. The more I read of this, the more overblown I think the concerns are.

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @02:21PM (#44270671) Journal

    From SPACE!!! Alienado. I'm not just going to sit here and write about it. I'm going to throw bombs into space.

  • 'Telegraphs in Philadelphia were spitting out âoefantastical and unreadable messages,â'

    That's why, today, we have error correction.

  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Saturday July 13, 2013 @11:56PM (#44273765)

    So I work for a telco, and I used to work in the NOC. I got all the alarms for all the equipment all over the country and would call out techs to fix it or fix it myself when there was a problem. After a particularly bad day a few years back I read that there had been some elevated solar activity that day. We always knew that solar activity effected our equipment, after all our giant nationwide network was basically a huge copper net for all those stray electrons. But I realized that now I had a large dataset to play with.

    To my surprise there was actually a NASA space weather website with large datasets you could download that would show solar output over time. So I dumped all this into a database along with logs of our alarms. Without getting into all the details of it, I found that we indeed did have spikes when solar activity went up but there were other spikes as well. Realizing our #1 cause of equipment alarm or failure was electrical storms, I then filtered out all alarms that were resolved as "Storm related" by the repair tech and re-ran my report. There, clear as day were 2 graph lines that were very similar in their trajectory. Solar activity and our alarm activity. It wasn't perfect but I'm no research scientist but it was compelling enough that I took this to my boss, very excited. He was impressed "That's really cool!" I was giddy... then he looked up and said "well?" and I was like "Huh" and which point he made the obvious point that I had missed in my excitement "there is absolutely nothing we can do about this. You just wasted several hours of your time... it's still really cool though!"

    Ah well... but it is a fact, solar activity has a direct impact on copper networking equipment. Even our fiber optic networks had an increase in alarms, I suspect because the routers and such are metal and plugged into the electrical grid.

Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan