HOMELAND SECURITY

Catastrophic Solar Flare Scenario Touches Off Stormy Debate

2/1/2012
By Dan Parsons
Energy from solar flares can harm electrical grids on Earth, but a new study says the sun probably won’t plunge the United States into the Dark Ages, as some theorists have said.

Working on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, scientists with JASON, a government advisory group, recently published a report on the vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid to solar flares. “Impacts of Severe Space Weather on the Electric Grid” concludes that while energy blasts from the sun, called coronal mass ejections, can damage transmission lines, it’s unlikely the entire grid could be brought down.

The Secrecy News Blog, published by the Federation of American Scientists, reported that DHS, which requested the JASON study, refused to make it publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act. FAS independently obtained a copy of the report.

The sun is on the upswing of an 11-year cycle called solar maximum, which is ripe for solar flares. Solar-generated electromagnetic pulses have been a matter of concern in the run-up to May 2013, when the sun is expected to be most volatile.

“Concerns about the vulnerabilities of technical infrastructure to space weather have been growing since the sun entered the early stages of the current sunspot cycle in 2009, increasing prospects for severe solar storms,” the report reads. “The primary issue is not whether these storms will occur but the risks they pose to power grids, satellite communications and GPS.”

Government officials and scientists who study the sun are concerned that not enough is known about the effects of solar energy on power transmission equipment. The JASON report calls attention to the need for better protections against electromagnetic pulses that result from solar flares, but stops short of supporting a popular theory that the sun’s energy could spell doom for America.

John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants, is convinced that a large solar storm could strain the U.S. electrical grid to the point of collapse. That theory was the centerpiece of several days of exercises in Washington, D.C., in November involving industry, government, researchers and defense officials aimed at parsing out what the impact and aftermath of a massive solar storm would look like.

Solar storms have caused hours-long disruptions in high-frequency radio communications and GPS satellites in the recent past but no one is quite sure how a massive storm would affect power generation and transmission in the United States.

Worst-case scenario: all of the nation’s electrical grids collapse under the strain of a large solar flare.

Kappenman said at the November conference that 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 immediately become useless. Society would be sent back into the 18th century.

The JASON report cast doubt on a Kappenman study that said such a catastrophic outage could occur.

“Because mitigation has not been widely applied to the U.S. electric grid, severe damage is a possibility, but a rigorous risk assessment has not been done,” the report reads. ”We are not convinced that the worst-case scenario … is plausible.”

It goes on to say Kappenman’s report is not “suitable for deciding national policy.”

Some of Kappenman’s concerns are legitimate, as space weather is known to have affected GPS. Three small storms have struck the United States this year, requiring the rerouting of aircraft, among other disruptions. With better detection and mitigation strategies, the worst consequences can be avoided, the report says.

The government has no coordinated plan of action after an EMP — whether that comes from a nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, or a solar storm, the JASON report warns. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., which is responsible for keeping track of sunspots and solar flares.

“The federal response … is poorly organized; no one is in charge, resulting in duplications and omissions between agencies,” the report reads.

Needed are better satellites and more robust protection measures for vital grid components like transformers, according to the report.

Federal space-weather monitoring and response should be centralized, it adds. Moreover, funding for studies of the electrical grid and its weaknesses should continue.

Still, enough analysis has been done and enough countermeasures are in place to prevent a complete collapse of the grid, the report concludes.

Topics: Homeland Security, Space

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