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Are We Prepared for an Extreme Solar Storm?

by Shane Peter Conroy about a month ago in Climate
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Scientists says an extreme solar storm could cause more than $2 trillion worth of damage. That’s 20 times greater than the cost of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash

It’s clear that there are various preparations in place to protect us from the fallout of an extreme solar storm — known as a coronial mass ejecton (CME). But there’s still much we need to learn about CMEs in order to boost our preparedness.

A 1989 solar storm that took out power grids in Canada and the US got engineers thinking. Since then, many utility suppliers have built safety measures into power grids that are designed to protect transformers from burning out due to power surges caused by solar storms. That should isolate power failures to relatively small parts of the grid, and protect against wide-spread transformer burnouts that take an extended period — potentially months — to fix.

Some governments are taking additional protective actions. The Department of Homeland Security in the US, for example, has implemented a Recovery Transformer program that aims to design and build temporary transformers that can be installed as a stop-gap in times of emergency. Some power suppliers are using Faraday cages to protect important equipment from solar-storm surges, and others are building battery banks that can pump stored energy into the grid when a transformer fails.

It’s more effective, however, to briefly shut down the grid before a solar storm hits. But, to do so, we need to improve how solar storms are forecast. Currently, researchers say the worst case scenario is a 12-hour window from when a solar storm is observed on the surface of the sun to the moment it impacts Earth.

However, scientists won’t know how severe a solar storm is and exactly where it will impact until it’s much closer to home. For this, the Discover satellite will give us only about 60 minutes’ warning. Whether that’s enough time to shut down power grids in affected areas remains to be seen.

A similar problem affects satellites too. Solar storms and other geomagnetic activity can drag satellites out of orbit and interfere with GPS signals. Modern satellites tend to shield critical electronics from damaging radiation, but — like the power grid — it would be more effective to temporarily shut down vulnerable satellite electronics to prevent damage as a solar storm passes.

So expanding that forecast window will be the most effective way to protect our power grids and GPS satellites.

The Parker Solar Probe is offering hope in this area. It was launched in 2018 and, in 2021, became the first spacecraft to enter the sun’s atmosphere. Data coming back from Parker — and a similar spacecraft known as Solar Orbiter — is helping scientists learn more about solar storms and how to forecast them with greater accuracy. It’s still very much a work in progress, but we’re not exactly flying blind when it comes to predicting major solar storm events.

How likely is it that an extreme solar storm will impact Earth?

Well, that really depends on who you ask.

According to physicist Pete Riley, the chances of a Carrington-class solar storm impacting Earth are higher than you might expect. His analysis concluded that there is a 12 percent chance of an extreme CME hitting Earth by 2024.

However, a different 2019 study argues the chance of a Carrington-class solar storm impacting Earth by 2029 is between just 0.46 percent and 1.88 percent.

And on the alarmist end of the scale, in 2015 the executive director of the Electromagnetic Pulse Task Force on National Homeland Security told the US Congress that prolonged damage to the power grid could cause widespread starvation, disease and societal collapse that could kill 90 percent of the US population.

What we do know for sure is that the sun completes a solar cycle every 11 years. Solar storm activity builds during these cycles. Solar Cycle 25 began in December 2019, and is predicted to experience its peak storm activity in July 2025.

So, if the numbers are accurate, we’re talking about a small chance of potentially mass devastation. Shutting down power grids before a CME strikes could prevent much of that damage, and scientists are working to extend forecast timelines to give power plants and other utilities more time to respond.

If protection measures are effective, a big CME could amount to not much more than a storm in a teacup. But a lot will depend on the human reaction. Even best case scenarios concede that a significant CME would likely take out communication and electricity grids for at least a short period.

That could result in panic on the ground that manifests in looting, rioting and violence as terrified citizens are cut off from news sources and transportation, and left to fend for themselves as governments work to restore communication and electricity grids.

With GPS systems and radio communications also potentially affected, police, military and other emergency services could be offline or at least temporarily unable to respond as normal to civil unrest and calls for assistance.

However, the chance of an extreme solar storm impacting in the next handful of years is small — somewhere between 0.46 percent and 12 percent depending on which modeling you believe. And if one does hit, the protections we already have in place could limit the damage to a few isolated power outages and temporary GPS disruptions.

But that’s a $2 trillion bet we really don’t want to make.

Read the full story:

Are Solar Storms the Next Big Threat to Humanity?

Climate

About the author

Shane Peter Conroy

Shane is just another human. He writes, he paints, he reads. He once got his tongue stuck to the inside of a freezer. Actually, he did it twice because he thought the first time might have been a fluke. https://themalcontent.substack.com

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