2012 Survival Guide: A practical planner for the worst case scenario

Sunspot Cycle vs. the Power Grid

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A graphic rundown of some of the satellite probes and ground-based monitoring of the Sun, radioactive particles and magnetism. Unfortunately, none of this equipment can stop a CME, just give us a little warning as it barrels toward us. Credit: NASA

Note: You can download a printable PDF doc of this article.

By reducing current on the grid and shutting down satellites, sensitive circuitry and transformers won't be overloaded. If they are, it could take months or years to replace all the equipment. However, these counter-measures come at a huge cost. As California's rolling blackouts of 2000 proved, cutting power to a grid without warning customers first can cause life-threatening outages. Officials will have to make a risk assessment, pitting deaths from traffic light failures, elevator stoppages and other communication failures against the possibility of a power grid overload. In 2006, the Discovery Channel took a closer look at this quandary in the docu-drama Solar Storm - Perfect Disaster.

Electricity transformers take a long time to manufacture. Replacing two thousand of them on the ground, and 140 million of them on electric poles, would cost about a trillion dollars and take up to ten years.

It doesn't help that the Earth's magnetic field appears to be petering out, say the phycisists who monitor it, losing 10 percent of its charge since measurements were first taken by Carl Gauss in 1835. Some of the experts (and more than a few doomsday proponents) believe a periodic magnetic pole reversal is in the works. Such events happen rarely on the planet, but when they do, they're accompanied by the kind of rapid decline in magnetism that has been observed in recent decades.

Wikimedia Commons

Artist's rendition of earth's magnetosphere as it blocks the sun's radiation. The Earth is the white spot on the neck of the blue spidery insect, portrays by the shape of the magnetic waves.

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There are several spots in the South Atlantic Ocean where such a north-south magnetic pole flip may be already underway. While a reversal carries its own consequences for electric power and circuitry (including computer hard drives), what worries scientists even more is the loss of a critical shield against space radiation at a time when it's needed most.

In 2007, a set of five satellite probes known as the THEMIS mission stumbled onto a breach of Earth's daylight side during a solar storm. Specially designed instruments were able to track a deluge of radioactive particles as they became trapped inside the magnetosphere. Had it been a more significant event, the radiation would have sent electrical current downward in an arc. The arc would have likely triggered a cascading failure of power grids around the world.

As it was, solar physicists were astonished by the data they collected. "At first I didn't believe it," David Sibeck of the Goddard Space Flight Center said in a NASA press release.

Project physicist Jimmy Raeder explained, "1027 particles per second were flowing into the magnetosphere — that's a 1 followed by 27 zeros. This kind of influx is an order of magnitude greater than what we thought was possible."

NASA

Artist's conception of the five THEMIS probes tracking a solar storm.

Defying a standard premise of physics, the event demonstrated that a CME has a far worse impact when the magnetic lines of the Earth and the Sun are both aligned to the north. The scientists expect the situation to reach white-knuckle stage when Sunspot Cycle 24 peaks in 2013. The press release continued:

"For reasons not fully understood, CMEs in even-numbered solar cycles tend to hit Earth with a leading edge that is magnetized north. Such a CME should open a breach and load the magnetosphere with plasma just before the storm gets underway. It's the perfect sequence for a really big event."

NASA's Sibeck added:

"The sequence we're expecting … is just right to put particles in and energize them to create the biggest geomagnetic storms, the brightest auroras, the biggest disturbances in Earth's radiation belts."

THEMIS, by the way stands for a mouthful: Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms. The mission merged with other satellites in 2010 and became known as ARTEMIS: Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun”.

Back in 2009, NASA funded a study and report from the National Academy of Sciences called "Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts." The workshop group of scientists concluded that the interdependent nature of high-tech society might prove our unraveling should a strong enough solar flare or CME broadside the planet.

With communications satellites disabled and the power grid inoperative, everything from water coming out of your tap to the public transit system would go out of service indefinitely. Gasoline could no longer be pumped from underground tanks, since that requires electricy. Stoplights would fail, causing a transportation nightmare and disrupting deliveries of food and other essential commodities. Consumers wouldn't be able to shop in any case, since banking and most retail transactions depend on electricity and the internet. Hospitals would also quickly bcome inaccessible, while police and other emergency responders would have no way to communicate in the field.

So while NASA continues to insist there's no looming catastrophe on the horizon, plain facts clearly suggest otherwise. In February 2010, the space agency launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a bigger and more elaborate probe than its predecessors. But like the others, this one can do nothing to thwart the impact of a CME, just film its spectacular and apocalyptic approach in living 3-D color.

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Next topic: Something Gamma This Way Comes

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2012 Guide Home

For more on Earth's magnetic field, see Geologic Upheaval on Tap.

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More Resources

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Quick Links

Disaster Monitoring Links

Mega-Disaster Planner

Articles of Interest

"Solar Storm’s Auroras May Dance Above Mid-U.S. This Weekend." Wired 7/12/12.

"Giant sunspot shoots out intense, X-class solar flare." Washington Post 7/12/12.

"Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather?" By Steve Tracton. Washington Post 7/11/12.

"This Week's Solar Flare Illuminates the Grid's Vulnerability." By Peter Behr. New York Times 6/9/11.

"Sunspot Drop Won’t Cause Global Cooling." By Brandon Keim. Wired.com 6/15/11.

"New Little Ice Age in store?" By Stephen Adams. Telegraph, U.K. 6/15/11.

"A Solar Scientist Rebuts a Cool Sunspot Prediction." New York Times 6/15/11.

"Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts (of a technological collapse...)" Space Studies Board, National Academy of Sciences. 2009.

"Catastrophe Looming? The Risks of Rising Solar Storm Activity." By Mike Wall. Space.com 2/17/11.

"Space Weather Turns Into an International Problem." NASA Science News 7/16/10.

"The Solar 'Katrina' Storm That Could Take Our Power Grid Out For Years." By Lawrence Joseph. Huffington Post 7/15/10.

"Electronic Armageddon? Congress Worries That Solar Flares Could Spell Disaster." Fox News 6/10/10.

"Regulators Assess the Ultimate Blackout Threat." By Peter Behr. New York Times 7/12/10.

"Nasa warns solar flares from 'huge space storm' will cause devastation." By Andrew Hough. Telegraph. U.K. 6/15/10.

"A Giant Breach in Earth's Magnetic Field." NASA press release. 12/16/08.

"Solar storm." BBC Focus. Sept. 2009

"A Future Space Weather Catastrophe: A Disturbing Possibility ". By Jeff Masters. WunderBlog 4/3/2009.

"Magnetic-Shield Cracks Found; Big Solar Storms Expected." National Geographic 12/17/08

"Leaks Found in Earth's Protective Magnetic Field." Space.com 12/16/08

"Earth Magnetic Field Reversal." By Mary-Sue Haliburton, Pure Energy Systems News 2/27/05

"Bracing the Satellite Infrastructure for a Solar Superstorm." Scientific American August 2008. (Note: full article requires payment to read.)

"The silent Sun’s uncertain course." The Financial Times 10/1/08 (register for free download of article).

"Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age." NASA News release 9/30/08

Websites

SolarCycle24.com

Understanding Sunspots
Windows to the Universe

Spaceweather.com

THEMIS mission

STEREO space observatory

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory Homepage

Stanford University Solar Center

Solar Wind and Heliosphere

The Sun-Earth Connection

Solar Flares

NASA Satellites (image)

Books

Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization's End (2007) by Lawrence Joseph.

DVD'S and TV Programs

The History Channel: Magnetic Storm (The Universe series), The Sun (Mega-Disasters series),

Discovery Channel: Perfect Disaster: Solar Storm

Nasa Warns Of Super Solar Storm 2012. YouTube.

2012 Guide Home
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