Space weather forecasters are predicting an upswing in solar activity that may result in catastrophes on Earth.
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. Scientists 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 solar storms, or how they will affect the electrical systems on which modern man has become almost irrevocably dependent. But they 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 Oct. 6 at a conference on severe space weather hosted by the National Defense University. “What we’ve been doing is building up electrical infrastructure for the last 50 years.”
As the nation’s power grid has become increasingly complex, little is known about what effect severe solar-generated weather would have on its reliability. Until science has answers, we’re in the crosshairs, said John Kappenman, the head of Storm Analysis Consultants, which studies solar storms.
“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. Grids are also potentially vulnerable to cyber-attacks or to manmade electromagnetic pulse weapons, but those scenarios were outside the scope of NDU’s investigation.
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.
Still, the likelihood and magnitude of future space weather is a “big uncertainty,” Murtagh said. And it may not be the most intense solar activity that causes the most damage. Solar storms in 1921 and 1859, the two considered the most destructive since measurements have been taken, were both lower than average intensity for solar storms over the past century.
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 solar storm — a massive burst of plasma and energy emitted by the sun — disabled the entire electrical grid of Quebec. The magnetosphere protects the planet from most of this energy. It acts as a shield and deflects most of it, but strong storms can penetrate these natural defenses.
Once a large storm hits, the nation’s power grid and electrical infrastructure is at risk, but industry representatives at the moment can only say they don’t know how bad the damage would be, Andres said.
“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 EMP 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 grid. 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, the nation’s entire electrical grid collapses under the strain of disruptive energy from the sun. Kappenman said power supply is the “scaffolding of modern society and if it fails, all other critical infrastructure will fail.”
It would be the “worst disaster society could imagine,” he added.
Everything that runs on electricity — food production, waste treatment, potable water distribution, computers — would fail immediately. Society would be plunged into the 18th century.
“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.”