Who's ready for a solar super storm? Not us, emergency officials say
Jim Waymer | FLORIDA TODAY
In a coordinated effort (see below) the Obama administration and federal security officials have chosen today to finally broaden awareness about impending Solar Storms and their potential consequences. And the consequences can be life-changing. When the CME is directed away from earth, chances are all we get is a light show. But the earth's geomagnetic shield is not strong enough to deflect the force of a direct hit as happened in 19th century, before technology. And now, it is just a matter of time before we learn the results a dead center CME will have on the world's most technologically-dependant countries. Here's a hint. Amost 5,000 giant transformers are used each day to reduce electricity traveling on high power lines across America to 220 and 110 volts for consumer use. The transformers are the most vulnerable part of the grid. A reserve of less than 500 exist to replace transformers destroyed by a CME Carrington Effect. And it will take months to get them in place. (editors SESN)
For answers to frequently asked questions, including information about solar storms, visit the NASA link here: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/spaceweather/index.html
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center: www.swpc.noaa.gov/
INDIALANTIC — Atomic particles explode off the sun’s surface, with the force of millions of hydrogen bombs, clobber Earth’s magnetic field in less than a day and black out the electric grid for days or longer.
Such a solar “super storm” happened in 1859. Called the Carrington Event, solar wind smacked the Earth within 18 hours, though the trip usually takes four days. Auroras lit the night sky as far south as Cuba, and in Boston and London, people read the newspaper under the nighttime glow.
A similar event now could cause $2 trillion in damage to the United States’ power grid, experts say. And Florida, while well-versed in hurricanes, has no experience with such massive magnetic storms. So on Tuesday, about 100 emergency managers gathered at Crown Plaza in Indialantic to learn how to brace for a solar super storm. While such powerful storms are rare, scientists say it is just a matter of time before one bombards Earth again.
“A space weather event is going to introduce a whole different set of dynamics,” William Bryan, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, told emergency managers from throughout the state. The three-day training exercise, closed to the general public, was funded under the federal stimulus bill.
“This threat of geomagnetic disturbance has a lot of attention in Washington,” Bryan said during his keynote address. “This is not science fiction. It’s real. These things are really happening and could really have an impact on us.”
Solar wind induces the dramatic green glow of the northern lights.
The main concern for the power grid is the more powerful solar events called Coronal Mass Ejections, huge solar wind bursts that can disrupt Earth’s magnetic field.
“Just billions of tons of plasma gas blasting out,” explained Bill Murtagh, senior forecaster at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.
Earth’s magnetic field can get temporarily “smooshed” under the onslaught of solar wind, disrupting radio communications, GPS and damaging satellites.
“Smart plows” in Alaska that use GPS to keep a safe course during zero-visibility conditions would fly blind. “For these folks, it’s a life-or-death situation,” Murtagh said.
Sea turtles, whales and other animals that rely on Earth’s magnetic field to navigate would lose their bearings.
Severe solar storms could endanger astronauts, too. “It can be a very, very unhealthy environment to have human beings outside the protective bubble of our atmosphere,” said Niescja Turner, an associate professor of physics and space sciences at Florida Institute of Technology.
The sun grows more active on decade-long cycles and is expected to peak in activity next year, raising chances of magnetic storms. “Every 11 years, the activity is going to ramp up,” Turner said. “Right now, we’re approaching solar maximum.”
The most recent magnetic storm to cause widespread outage occurred in March 1989, causing the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec electrical system in Canada, which left more than 6 million without power for nine hours.
A severe solar storm as powerful as the one in 1921 could leave 130 million people without power and costing $2 trillion in damages, according to information handed out Tuesday.
Studies differ widely on what the impact to the electric grid would be, ranging from just a few days of blackouts to several years.
FPL spokeswoman Marie Bertot said in a statement that solar storm effects in Florida likely would be minimal. “We take all appropriate actions, and our employees prepare year-round and take part in drills for extreme weather events and emergencies of all kinds, including solar storms.’’
Federal officials and scientists agree on one thing: the uncertainty.
“This is one of those non-predictable events,” Bryan, of the Department of Energy, said. “We know it’s going to happen. We just don’t know when. How big will this event be? We don’t know that.”
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