Hurricanes, terrorist attacks and earthquakes can cause devastation and massive losses of life, but a severe solar storm could plunge the nation back into the 18th Century.
The sun is on the upswing of an 11-year cycle called solar maximum, which is ripe for solar flares. The sun’s volatility is expected to reach an apex sometime in May 2013, said William Murtagh, a space weather scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Researchers are racing to understand the effects its energy might have on the U.S power grids in hopes that potential cataclysm can be avoided.
At present, there is no reliable method of predicting when and if Earth will be bombarded by a massive solar storms, or how one would affect the electrical systems on which modern man has become irrevocably dependent. But these storms happen frequently and the big one could be on its way.
“We know these events are going to occur,” Richard Andres, senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, said at a space weather conference hosted by the National Defense University.
Laura Furgione, deputy assistant administrator for weather services at NOAA, said at the NDIA homeland security conference that forecasts for the next solar maximum call for fewer storms. But patterns have shown that fewer storms means that those that do occur are more intense.
As the nation’s power grids have become increasingly complex, little is known about the effects severe solar-generated weather would have on their reliability. Until science has answers, the world is in the crosshairs, said John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants.
“As a society, we are playing Russian Roulette with the sun,” Kappenman said. “If you play that game too long, you’re going to lose.”
The effects of a solar storm are varied and the people who understand them are few, Andres said. NDU’s primary mission is to act as a conduit between experts, industry and government to hit on a plan to deal with a potentially crippling solar storm.
The conference was the culmination of several days of exercises involving industry, government, researchers and defense officials aimed at parsing out what the impact and aftermath of a massive solar storm would look like.
Agencies that monitor the sun’s behavior, including the National Weather Service, have a limited ability to predict when solar flares, also known as coronal mass ejections, are earthbound. There is only one satellite designed for that purpose and it is insufficient, Andres said.
More frequently, solar storms have caused hours-long disruptions in high-frequency radio communications and GPS satellites, Murtagh said. Understanding the effect on communications has profound implications for the accuracy of military and civilian vehicles that rely on the navigation system.
In 1989, a massive burst of plasma and energy emitted by the sun disabled an electrical grid in Quebec. The magnetosphere acts as a shield and deflects most of this energy, but strong storms can penetrate these natural defenses.
“This is a very serious problem and we need more science on this. We have a fairly good idea of what would happen if an [electro-magnetic pulse] from a manmade device occurred,” Andres said. “We’re not quite as certain of what would happen if a massive event occurred based on a solar storm.”
Scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory are studying the effects of energy pulses on transformers such as those scattered throughout the nation’s energy grids. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is sponsoring the experiments, is preparing to release a report on its findings Feb. 1.
“What we really did not get a grasp on, and this is very important, is what would happen to society as a whole,” Andres said. “What would happen if you had the effect of a Hurricane Katrina, except instead of hitting one city, it hit 100 cities at once.”
Worst-case scenario: all of the nation’s electrical grids collapse under the strain. Kappenman said power supply is the “scaffolding of modern society and if it fails, all other critical infrastructure will fail.”
Everything that runs on electricity — food production, waste treatment, potable water distribution, computers — would cease immediately. Society would be sent back to into the 18th century.
It would be the “worst disaster society could imagine,” he added.
“We have become a hugely dependent society,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, *D-Md., and co-chair of the Congressional electromagnetic pulse caucus. “We are dependent on the electric grid and on electricity. If you think about your life and the things you do, if the electric grid is down, almost every one of the institutions in our country is down.”
(*Correction: Rep. Bartlett is a Republican.)
NOAA’s Furgione said in 2011, three small solar storms have already caused some communication disruptions and the rerouting of aircraft. Measures can be taken if there are adequate warnings, she noted. The agency’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder. Colo., is responsible for monitoring the sun and sending out forecasts.
“We can put satellites in safe mode. We can also power down our grids safely,” she said.