The solar cycle or the sunspot cycle refers to the 11 or 22 year cycle in which the amount of sunspots counted on the surface of the sun increase and then decrease over a period of years. Whether you are in a waxing or waning phase is one of the determinants of good long range high frequency radio reception. I am a Ham and aficionado of short wave radio and we hams tend to keep up on where we are in the sunspot cycle. While googling on the sunspot cycle, I stumbled upon an reference to a perfect storm scenario of damage to our communication and navigation infrastructure and our electrical grid as a consequence of a possible future severe solar storm. Some of the links were hysterical apocalyptic reports from bloggers gone batty but the single useful link was a 132 pg paper from the National Academy of Sciences 1.5 day meeting in May of 2008 entitled
Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts.http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12507&page=9
I have a long time interest in astronomy, astrophysics, and communications and I found the paper well written and fascinating. Severe Space weather is a very significant low probability-high consequence event that I would like to address in this blog.
The key to understanding the magnitude of this low frequency/high consequence(LF/HC) solar storm event is the foreknowledge of the way our complex society is organized. Modern industrial society is characterized by a series of complex interwoven networks, like a massive Venn diagram or spiderweb. It is a web of dependencies and inter dependencies in a complex adaptive system highly reliant upon electrical energy. I have discussed such system vulnerability in previous discussions and one particular aspect of this system vulnerability has to do with how these systems are organized. One example I offer is how information travels between computers and servers corralled and mediated by appropriate software. The engineers and managers of such systems are of course under the thumbs of bean counters who demand low cost high speed networks, ie., efficient networks. They do not emphasize robustness. A robust network would have multiple alternative nodes and pathways and back up systems which would normally go unused except in a system overload or failure. Building robustness into the system costs money and as a consequence in many systems as in the general world, bottom line considerations rule.Such efficient systems are vulnerable to failure or collapse.
The most vulnerable part of our system is the electrical part, as electrical energy drives virtually all aspects of modern communications, command and control functions, finance, navigation and transportation . Electricity is distributed in most of our societies though electrical grids and that is the rub. We tend to generate our electricity in huge ie efficient water cooled power plants and distribute this electricity boosting voltage by giant transformers to overcome the resistance in the transmission lines. Once the electricity reaches its destination, step down transformers restore the electricity to low voltage current we can use in our homes and factories. Electricity and magnetism are blood brothers and we have now come to how electromagnetic superstorms from our sun could overwhelm and collapse our electrical grid.
The sun is a dynamic hydrogen fusion reactor which occasionally erupts releasing huge amounts of energy in the form of coronal mass ejections(CME) and solar flares. The magnitude of such storms is captured in a paragraph from the NAS paper:
Some recent solar storms was a blackout in Quebec during the magnetic superstorm of March 1989 and the disruption of the Anik Canadian communications satellites in 1994, as well as some less well known events such as the disruption of Allied radars in 1942 by an intense solar outburst and the brief loss of communication by Air Force One on a visit to China in 1984. The real Grand daddy superstorms were the storms of 1921 and the so called Carrington Event in September 1859. Here is a description from the paper with a stunning conclusion :
The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921.
“A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.
Later in the paper I read estimates of $1-2 Trillion a year with estimates of 4-10 years to fully repair the damage. And that is just in the US! The crucial point to realize is that the US has not had a superstorm event of note since 1921 and 1859 when the electrical and communications infrastructure was in its infancy.
Vulnerability varies across the country. Here is a map of the US with a circle of highest vulnerability as well as a map showing the percentages of transformers likely to be knocked out in a superstorm. Vermont appears at highest risk of 97 % and much of the southern states seem to be untouched.
are at greatest peril. The barrage of accelerated particles from the sun disrupt and rearrange the earths magnetic field inducing ground currents which are amplified by the long grid transmission lines which act like giant antennas transporting dangerous current and voltages to distant regions, melting the copper windings in the huge transformers as well as aging or damaging communication satellites and even posing grave risks to gas and oil pipelines. In such a blackout there is a cascade of breakers tripping and it is here that the real cancer of dependencies begin to manifest itself. With a loss of electric power, you have a loss of for example, water power. In many facilities like hospitals and defense establishments back up generators would kick in for a time but lack of water dooms electrical production due to lack of cooling, not to mention lack of water for human and animal consumption and agriculture and industry.
Communication is lost and much of the grid is under the command and control of computerized systems. Most of the large transformers are one off structures taking months to re manufacture. It is not possible to do field repairs in most cases and backup transformers are not routinely stockpiled. An additional complication is that is is difficult or impossible to model such a cascade of failures or run drills to prepare for such exigencies without shutting down vast areas of production and distribution of electricity. The paper lists the various agencies and branches that would have to respond to such a disaster and it is obvious that NASA and NAS are working hard to develop mitigating strategies to deal with such an apocalypse of electrical failure. For example, new frequencies and computer codes have been developed to add robustness to GPS navigation but a sentence in the paper said it will be fully implemented in perhaps 15(!) years. An early warning system is obviously part of the preparation but the stunning speed which the particles can make the 93 million mile trip from the sun adds another layer of complication. It can arrive in as little as 17 hours as in the Carrington Event and predicting the magnitude of the impact is problematic. Shutting down a grid for what amounts to a false alarm would be extremely costly and disruptive.
My final comment deals with my skepticism of the level of adult behavior and competent leadership from our national government which was showcased for all to see with Katrina, a Category 3 hurricane.