Today and tomorrow, the earth will be hit by what one scientist called a “fire hose” of supercharged particles from a hole in the corona of the sun. The hole has kind of acted like a spinning sprinkler: as the sun has rotated, the hole has stayed open and sent its stream of solar plasma in a 360 degree arc around the solar system. The earth already passed through it once, on October 7 and 8.
This hole creates a 90 percent likelihood for strong geomagnetic storms in the far northern hemisphere. Geomagnetic storms are disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field that are usually associated with solar storms. Parts to solar storms are solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar radiation events. They can take place all at once, though small solar flares occur on their own almost daily.
The sun constantly barrages the earth with charged particles, called solar wind. Normally, the magnetic field around the earth stops most of the particles – and creates the aurora borealis light shows. Especially during times of high sunspot activity, however, the sun can eject a blast of electromagnetic (EM) radiation, called a solar flare. Radio waves, visible light, x-rays, and ultraviolet radiation are some types of electromagnetic radiation. A large solar flare can hit the earth’s upper atmosphere with the force a million times stronger than a volcano. It can cause degradation and even blackouts of service for electronic devices like cell phones, GPS, and radios. Solar flares typically last from one to three hours and affect the sunlit side of the earth.
One NASA writer compared a solar flare to a cannon flash and a coronal mass ejection (CME) to the cannonball. A CME usually takes two to three days to hit the earth, though they can be faster. When it slams into the earth’s magnetic field, it causes a geomagnetic storm. Geomagnetic storms can mess with infrastructure in several ways, including satellites, the power grid, and even metal pipes. For example, geomagnetic storms can bump satellites out of place and cause damage to the satellites themselves. If a communication network uses a satellite, it won’t work until the satellite is moved back into place.
Geomagnetic storms can mess with electrical currents and overload utilities.
A 1989 geomagnetic storm took only 90 seconds to collapse a northeastern Canada power grid. Millions of people lost power for up to nine hours. The storm also caused minor damage throughout the U.S.
Damage to power infrastructure comes because rogue currents from the geomagnetic storm piggyback on power lines and metal pipelines.
They can travel thousands of miles and in the process scramble the carefully calibrated currents. This can cause overheating that can melt the copper wires in transformers and destroy them. A burned-out, multi-ton transformer can take months to fix.
The power grid is more interconnected than ever. On a hot day, Los Angeles might get some of its power from Oregon. So an extreme storm that causes a power blackout in Oregon could also cause catastrophic power grid failure in southern California.
A 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that a solar storm like one in 1859 that was the largest recorded could cause $2 trillion in damage during the first year alone. That’s 20 times greater than Hurricane Katrina.
Report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at a May 1921 geomagnetic storm with ground currents ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm but half the size of the 1859 one. He estimated 130 million people without power. That would shut down every other aspect of the infrastructure: "water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on,” the study said.
"The concept of interdependency," the report notes, "is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power--and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site."
That means, by the way, that many toilets wouldn’t work because many water utilities use electric pumps.
Now, in case the odds of all this seem improbable, in 2012,a monster solar storm estimated to be as strong as the 1859 one, and containing two CMEs, barely missed the earth.
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado told NASA.
The White House on Thursday announced a plan to prepare for major solar storms by working with a several government, nonprofit and for-profit agencies to better prepare infrastructure and to study solar storms to provide more warning.
“The plan was motivated by a recognition that we need a cohesive national network to build resilience [to space weather] and to determine what we need to know,” Bill Murtagh, assistant director for space weather at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told The Washington Post. “This is a real and present danger, this is a real threat.”
Now, NASA sends out a warning between 45 and 60 minutes before a geomagnetic storm develops. On October 26, for example, NASA issued a warning about a minor CME that glanced off the earth’s atmosphere.
After a power grid disaster, government and utilities’ highest priorities will be getting power plants online and making sure medical facilities and first responders have the power they need, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Homeowners, business owners, and local leaders may have to take an active role in dealing with energy disruptions on their own,” the DOE wrote.
- Have a fully stocked emergency kit including food and water, a flashlight, batteries, cash in small bills and first aid supplies.
- Keep cell phones and other battery-powered devices charged and have an alternative charging method.
- Keep the car’s gas tank full. A vehicle’s battery can be a temporary power source – but not indoors, unless carbon monoxide poisoning sounds like fun.
- Those who use a power-dependent or battery-operated medical device, should tell their local utility so it can prioritize their home. They should also have a backup plan.
- Find out where to buy dry ice. Fifty pounds will keep a fully stocked fridge cold for two days. Without it, an unopened fridge will keep food cold for only about four hours. A half-full, unopened freezer will keep food cold for about 24 hours. Food in a packed, unopened freezer will stay cold for twice that long.
In the meantime, today and tomorrow sky watchers as far south as Oregon and Idaho may get to see auroras. Enjoy.