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Don Paul: A quiet but deadly threat from space weather

Space weather isn’t much connected with terrestrial weather. Despite that, it’s the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center/SWPC in Boulder, Colorado which is the nation’s and the world’s leading clearinghouse for fast-developing space weather phenomena. Some of that space weather could eventually prove deadly.

SWPC is headed by Dr. Tom Bogdan, who grew up here in WNY with an undergraduate physics degree from SUNY Buffalo, before he went on to earn a physics Ph.D. from the elite University of Chicago. Most of the working scientists at SWPC are astrophysicists, not meteorologists. As many of you know, our sun shoots out many solar flares and occasional powerful coronal mass ejections/CMEs, some of which target earth. Here is what Bogdan has said on the rare most powerful CMEs and our planet.

"What's at stake are the advanced technologies that underlie virtually every aspect of our lives."

CMEs are different from solar flares in that they contain more energy and travel more slowly.

A truly large CME can be a 10 billion-ton ball of solar plasma made up of charged particles which travels at about 6 to 10 million mph. If aimed at the earth, a CME would take about 18 to 36 hours to reach us. That theoretically would afford utilities, if they act promptly, some lead time to shut down systems and lessen the amount of devastation a worst-case CME would bring to power grids and electrical equipment. There also is some more resistant engineering now being employed in newer systems in the grid.

It would be difficult to gauge the probability and timing of such a cataclysm, except to say it has happened in the past and will, at some unknown time in the future, happen again.

The “Carrington Event” occurred in 1859. The only electrical grid in existence then was the burgeoning telegraph system. Calculations on the power of the Carrington Event can be extrapolated from its observed effects. It caused numerous fires at telegraph stations in the United States and gave operators shocks. Telegraph paper burst into flames. Telegraphs continued to transmit gibberish for hours even after they were disconnected.

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Physicists and engineers calculate from those effects that such a powerful CME, if it occurred today, would be a large-scale disaster in its target region and beyond. Even a lesser but still very powerful CME in 1921 knocked out most radio along the east coast and telephone service in most of Europe. A 2008 National Academy of Science study estimates a CME of this 1921 event magnitude today would take power out for 130 million Americans and destroy up to 350 utility transformers. New transformers in such numbers can take up to two years to manufacture and replace. Power outages would not be a short-lived inconvenience.

What historical evidence exists seems to suggest a period of about 150 years between Carrington Event-scale CMEs striking earth when our magnetic field is properly aligned to allow the full impact to reach our lower atmosphere and surface, though that estimate is based on pretty sketchy data. Overall, though, probabilities on this type of CME event with its electromagnetic pulse/EMP seem to make its rarity clear.

Sidebar: EMPs from the sun are one thing. The impact of an EMP would be even worse if an enemy detonated a thermonuclear weapon at high altitude over the central United States. The EMP from an H -bomb would occur in a brief instant and essentially destroy nearly all unshielded modern electronics, including auto ignitions, the grid and most of what’s connected to the grid. It has been speculated a rogue nation such as North Korea could inflict unimaginable damage with a single well-placed nuclear EMP. (In my view, the problem with that scenario is such an attack would be instantly traceable to North Korea, leaving it wide open to nuclear retaliation from ICBMs in shielded Navy missile subs. It would be an act of suicide. Terrorists would have to be able to launch such a weapon to a higher altitude to make such an attack, as well.)

So, the worst case scenario remains unlikely at any given time.

But what would occur if a Carrington-scale calamity actually occurred with so much of the grid inadequately shielded? Sources I’ve researched paint a very grim picture. Besides lights going out, foods requiring refrigeration would quickly spoil. Transportation would be largely shut down because truck ignitions would be inoperative. Planting and harvesting would grind down to very low levels without operating farm machinery, and harvested crops would be impossible to transport in adequate quantities. Medicines couldn’t be manufactured without electricity, nor could existing stocks be transported.

Backup generators at nuclear power plants would run out of fuel after about 30 days, and cooling for the fuel rods would cease. Meltdowns would follow. Millions would die of starvation and millions would die of disease.

However, we are not entirely defenseless against this worst-case scenario. We now have solar observations from deep-space satellites, which would give utilities around 12 hours to prepare to reduce damage with shutdowns (which would, admittedly, cause billions in damages).

Both of our two newest GOES geostationary weather satellites have sensors facing the sun and tracking solar activity. The modeling for impact times and scale, of course, is predicated upon the accuracy of space weather forecasts. As you might have guessed, space weather presents its own difficulties in forecasting accuracy.

The Department of Homeland Security has been working with private industry to develop new types of quick-manufacture transformers which can be transported by truck (seemingly after ignition repairs are completed) to replace the older 50-100 ton destroyed transformers. We’ve got some years to go on this research, but at least it’s in the works.

In the meantime, our vast grid remains vulnerable to this low-frequency, rare space weather event.

In fact, the threat of cyberattacks against utilities and the grid has already been demonstrated to be feasible with today’s technology. Cyberattacks, statistically, may well be a more likely threat to the grid. Utilities are scrambling to improve cybersecurity. How far along they’ve come is, at least to me, an unknown.

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