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Space Earth

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

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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  • Hardened electronics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 25, 2014 @10:04AM (#47530865)

    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 sized to be able to deal with currents induced by a high dV/ds and high dV/dt (voltage variation in space or time), including those inside the chip. And you need an extra-tick discharge ground plane, which causes capacitancy problems (i.e. signal degradation on high-frequency operation).

    And lots of protection circtuitry everywhere else, plus very effective ground shielding, and overvoltage peak clampers everywhere you have more than a few centimeters of any sort of conductor. It adds a lot of bulk, and it is expensive.

    It is also standard fare for EMP-hardened military-grade portable devices that cannot be shielded behind several inches of stupidly well-grounded steel/copper faraday cages all the time, so it can be done. But "portable" in military speak can easily weight 30kg :-p

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

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Friday July 25, 2014 @10:33AM (#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.

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

    by swb ( 14022 ) on Friday July 25, 2014 @11:00AM (#47531351)

    When I toured the Union Electric hydropower plant in Keokuk, Iowa back in the 1990s when they still let you into places like that (with a camera, no less) the guy showed me a hand-crank the size of a bicycle wheel that was originally designed to dead start the plant when it was self-powered.

    Apparently spinning that generated just enough power to get one of the turbines generating electricity and that was enough power to boot strap the entire plant.

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

    by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <> on Friday July 25, 2014 @12:03PM (#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.

  • Re:FUD filled.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 25, 2014 @01:19PM (#47532673)

    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 transformers to likely incinerate their windings anyway. Read descriptions of what happened to the early telegraph systems during the Carrington event (the 150 years ago event referenced)... First operators disconnected their batteries and the telegraphs kept operating on geomagnetic induced currents. Then the wires and terminals started catching fire.

When a fellow says, "It ain't the money but the principle of the thing," it's the money. -- Kim Hubbard