The Facts on Solar Storms

“Leading scientists are warning that a massive solar storm could trigger a $2 trillion ‘global Katrina’ that short-circuits power grids worldwide.” -Lesley Taylor

If you’ve been keeping up with your online news lately, you may have heard that, undoubtedly, an impending Solar Storm will cause hundreds of billions — if not trillions — of dollars of damage.

The impending storm has been compared to a global Hurricane Katrina. What’s the hullaballoo about?

Last week, the Sun launched forth a powerful Solar Flare, as imaged above by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. What was the big effect of this Solar Flare, the most powerful one in five years?

Image credit: JaneG from Scotland.

Just days later, the Aurora Borealis — as imaged here on February 17th — were absolutely spectacular for northern skywatchers. (The Southern Lights were likely just as spectacular, but no one’s sent me their pictures!) Why’s this? Because the Sun ejects high-energy charged particles!

And, you might wonder, how will this affect me?

Well, if you read the news headlines, what would you think was going to happen?

  • According to the UK’s Daily Mail, Get ready for a ‘global Katrina’: Biggest ever solar storm could cause power cuts which last for MONTHS.
  • According to theweek.com, “A huge eruption of solar radiation is hitting the Earth… it’s expected to kick off a two-year period of intense solar activity.”
  • The highest price tag come from the Star, authors of the quote atop this page, who contend, “Powerful solar flares ignite a geomagnetic storm that can shoot direct currents into the power grid, [NOAA scientist Joseph] Kunches explained. The domino effect could cripple transformers and special equipment that could take months or years to replace, he said.”
  • And there’s even a huckster selling a Solar Storm Survival Guide, quote-mining the following gem: “Get ready for a once in a life time solar event,” Dr Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division said. “We know it’s coming but we don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”

What’s the deal with solar storms?

Well, as you know, the Sun is an active place. With powerful magnetic fields, this plasma (hot, ionized gas) can get accelerated off the surface, and in extreme cases, can get ejected in huge flares, prominences and bursts. Severe storms take place, on average, about once or twice every 11 years.

Image credit: SOHO satellite.

Get a big enough, S-shaped solar prominence, and it will often cause a huge solar storm! Charged particles hurtle towards the Earth at over a thousand kilometers per second (thanks, @4 and @5 below), reaching us after about four days, and then… and THEN…

And then the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere safely shield us from any possible damaging effects.

Let me be clear: SOLAR STORMS CAN HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO PHYSICAL EFFECTS WHATSOEVER ON THE HUMAN BODY!

The two things that can happen, however, are:

  1. The radiation can affect satellites in space, if they were constructed cheaply, and without sufficient radiation shielding.
  2. And they can cause swift changes to the magnetic fields on Earth’s surface.

In other words, we’re not at risk at all, but our electronics may be. How so?

You can induce huge currents, or changes in the magnetic field inside these satellites if they’re far enough away from Earth, which many of our GPS satellites are. Fortunately, we have some satellites (above) monitoring the Sun, so if there’s a solar storm coming, we could be responsible and turn the satellites off while the charged particles head towards them.

Additionally, the induced currents could lead to failures in power grids, power surges, and lots of other phenomena. The power grid failure in Toronto in 1989 can be traced back to a solar storm two full cycles ago. Of course, this could be eliminated by providing extra grounding.

But what if you live in a place where no one’s taken any precautions at all, and you find out the solar storm is coming! What can you do?

Well, the worst that can happen is you’ll get a power surge, so get a surge protector or — if you’re really paranoid — unplug your electronics. Could your car’s electronic ignition get fried by the radiation? Unlikely. Will the intense magnetic fields wipe out all your hard drive data? Also not likely to happen.

I won’t say impossible, and I’m certain that many of the satellites up there right now are both woefully equipped to deal with the radiation (because shielding costs extra) and that the operators won’t shut them down when the storms come, because nobody ever listens to scientists in these situations. But the operators of power grids would have to be idiots to not be prepared for a coming solar storm, and that would never happen. It would be extraordinarily facile to avoid even a single power grid failure, and people have been talking about it for a long time now.

So don’t be paranoid, and don’t even worry about being prepared. But when/if one comes, don’t be afraid to go for a day without your cellphone, or without your wireless internet. And that’s the worst case scenario.

Comments

  1. #1 BenHead
    February 23, 2011

    Clearly you haven’t seen that crappy Nicholas Cage movie, “Knowing”. We’re all gonna die! (Is Fry ever wrong?)

  2. #2 Raven
    February 23, 2011

    But…but…worrying about solar storms is so much more fun than fretting about global warming! And so much less guilt-inducing!

  3. #3 Raven
    February 23, 2011

    But…but…worrying about solar storms is so much more fun than fretting about global warming! And so much less guilt-inducing!

  4. #4 Rob Ryan
    February 23, 2011

    Um… perhaps you meant 1000 kilometers per second. At 1000 kilometers per hour it would take them about 6,236 days or about 17 years to get here. At 1000 kilometers per second, about 1 day and 17 hours (assuming the Sun is 93E6 miles away.

  5. #5 Udo Schroeter
    February 23, 2011

    Charged particles hurtle towards the Earth at over a thousand kilometers per hour, reaching us after about four days

    Huh. You’d think it would take a lot longer than 4 days to reach us at 1000km/h ;-)

  6. #6 Dr. Ian O'Neill
    February 23, 2011

    There’s a shedload of hype from the tabloid press about a solar flare causing all kinds of death and destruction, this is true, but the fact remains that space weather forecasting is underfunded and the risks are real. Should an entire power network be overloaded, it could take a long, long time to recover. Back-up systems either don’t exist, or only provide short-term solutions.

    What makes the whole thing horribly complex is the unpredictable nature of a geomagnetic storm. Take last week’s CME for example. Fortunately the Earth’s magnetic field wasn’t aligned correctly with the interplanetary magnetic field, so reconnection was minimal, and the CME mostly drifted by. If the configuration was different, there could have been a whole lot of reconnection at the magnetopause, injecting way more solar plasma into the magnetosphere.

    Although the last CME was tiny compared to some of the big CMEs we’ve been hit with in the past, we could have seen significant current passing through our upper atmosphere. This in turn would have induced a magnetic field, and that in turn could have induced current in terrestrial power grids.

    There are huge uncertainties in prediction methods for how a given storm may interact with our global magnetic field, which makes it inherently difficult for power companies to protect their systems.

    I don’t agree with your last point about the “worst case scenario.” We are becoming increasingly vulnerable to solar storms and yet we have a very light-weight early warning system in place. We simply do not know what the worst case scenario is.

    But as for the message of your article, about not panicking about solar storms, I’m behind you 100%. From all the media hype, a lot of misunderstandings about solar physics has been generated. And that’s just not cricket ;)

    Cheers!

    Ian

  7. #7 vagueofgodalming
    February 24, 2011

    People are always knocking the Daily Mail, but it’s almost a decent newspaper. All you have to do when reading it, is insert the word ‘not’ into every sentence that doesn’t contain it, and delete it from those that do, and you’ll be fine.

  8. #8 Dunc
    February 24, 2011

    And it’s only going to get worse as the solar cycle heats up… Where were all these doom-mongers last cycle? The flare last week was, what, X2 or something? Big, fat, hairy deal… I remember getting an alert about an X20 at the peak of the last cycle, and all I thought was “Good chance of aurora!”

  9. #9 Atoyota
    February 24, 2011

    It’s good to get a perspective on “Hype”, and some recent articles have been full of it.
    Can solar storms cause harm to humans? Yes in the form of radiation similar to X-rays.
    Can solar Storms damage infrastructure? Yes, pipelines and electronic grid (transformers)
    How often do they occur? RARE (1859 carrington event most severe on record (google it))

    We are due for one, and the Carrington event happened during a mild solar maximum, not one noted for major activity.
    Also worth mentioning, our infrastructure is more dependent on a very sensitive form of electronics (semiconductors), Making us much more vulnerable to massive failures in all computer component systems.

    So while this recent event was milder than expected (because the polarity of the plasma was correct for our magnetic field) A stronger one with an incorrect polarity could cause major systems failure and panic.

    Just making a point here…

  10. #10 Paulino
    February 24, 2011

    You’re saying that I wrapped my home in aluminium foil for nothing?!

  11. #11 Harnish
    February 24, 2011

    Posts 6 and 9 make really good points. The best points are (1859 Carrington event), when will such an occurrence happen again. Infrastructure; Back-up systems either don’t exist, or only provide short-term solutions – True. We simply do not know what the worst case scenario is – Very true. Post 6 is dead on regarding other info.

    Is the media going to hype this up? Sure they are, when do they not. Regardless, this is a serious threat that will one day come as a big surprise. Just imagine power grids going down for even a week. Whether its winter or summer, you’re talking about mass chaos on a level you probably haven’t thought of.

    One day we will get another Carrington event. Maybe next year, maybe in 200 years, but assured, it will happen again someday in the future. So get a pencil and start writing down all 500 of your Facebook friends.

  12. #12 Thomas
    February 24, 2011

    We can protect ourselves pretty well if we turn off satellites and much of our power grid if a large solar storm comes our way, but turning off services causes a great deal of inconvenience to people, and businessmen and politicians both may be unwilling to risk doing it. After all, if they succeed there will be no evidence what would have happened otherwise, and people will be mad about having stuff in their fridge ruined from a deliberate power outage.

    From that perspective I think it’s good that papers write about the risk so it’ll be easier to take the decision to shut down everything for a few hours when it becomes necessary. Sooner or later it will happen.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    February 24, 2011

    But the operators of power grids would have to be idiots to not be prepared for a coming solar storm, and that would never happen.

    You put way more faith in power grid operators than I would. Several times a year we have an incident (usually but not always related to tropospheric weather) which causes a power outage somewhere in the state (NH), and occasionally the outages are widespread. Those outages have been known to take several days to be fixed. In an extreme case, the January 1998 ice storm left some parts of Maine without power for weeks.

    The 1989 storm that caused the Hydro Quebec incident was the most geoeffective storm of the space age, but there have been bigger ones. Not just the Carrington event, either; there was a geomagnetic storm in 1921 that has been estimated to be half again as powerful as the 1989 storm. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground has made a few blog posts about the threat, and he suggests that in the worst-case scenario restoring the power grid would take months to years. Availability of replacement transformers in the quantities that would be needed is an issue, since manufacturing capacity is only about enough to deal with routine replacement plus some weather-related failures.

  14. #14 The Pondonome
    February 24, 2011

    The tabloids, as usual, are hyperventilating. But there is cause for worry, and that cause for worry is the Carrington Event of 1859, by far the largest flare known.

    It is surprising that, in a post with “Facts” in the title, you left mention of the Carrington Event to the informed commenters.

    But I see no mention of the 2008 workshop sponsored by the National Academies on the potentially catastrophic effects of a Carrington-scale flare, nor the warning last weekend presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco.

    We’re not talking tabloids here, people.

    The workshop found that a flare on the scale of the flare of 1921 –an order of magnitude less powerful than the Carrington Event– could take out some 300 of the multi-ton transformers which are the nodes of the grid. None of these transformers can be repaired on site, all of them would have to be replaced, and each of them takes a year’s lead time to manufacture.

    Links to the summary of the workshop and to the book published on the subject by the National Academies, and more, are available on my blog, most of them at

    http://thepondonome.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/the-sun-is-getting-scary/

    Oh, and by the way, you used the word “facile” incorrectly. “Facile” means “careless,” so it would be hardly be facile to AVOID a grid failure. Your use of “facile” was, well, facile.

    You are welcome to go over my blog with a fine-toothed thesaurus to find similar errors of my own.

  15. #15 Bobbie Ammons
    February 24, 2011

    Would you please reference the scientific data available that ‘Solar Flares can have absolutely no physical effects whatsoever on the human body.’
    Thank you,
    Bobbie

  16. #16 Ethan Siegel
    February 24, 2011

    Hey everyone, thanks for reminding us all of the event I left out: Carrington 1859. That is, as far as we know, the most powerful example of a solar storm and how it hits Earth.

    The induced currents are, of course, real, and worrisome for our electronics.

    And people should be prepared, if one comes, to go a few days without power; it’s the only way to be safe and not blow out your electronics.

    But one of the major tasks facing industrialized nations is upgrading their power grids. I have a hard time believing that putting in sufficient grounding for an event like that wouldn’t be standard practice. But if it isn’t, we should certainly be raising awareness of that, and of the necessity for it, as well as the ability to be prepared to turn off your power / satellite communications in the case of such an event.

    But I’ll still always hate the fear-mongering.

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    February 24, 2011

    The article is stupid, but the larger question of trusting grid operators ignores the enormous costs of modernizing the grid. Yes, this is major task facing industrialized nations, it is also one of those things that no one knows when we’re going to find the funds for, given the economic situation. I don’t find it hard to believe at all that grid planning isn’t going to take this into account, since it also hasn’t into account the obvious value of routine maintenence.

    Sharon Astyk

  18. #18 Vicki
    February 24, 2011

    The problem is that the current deregulation of electric grids and suppliers means that they’re operating close to the limits of what’s needed most of the time, because excess capacity costs money that is hard to justify in the “bottom line this quarter” view of management.

    What I’d worry about is a large solar storm triggering something on the scale of the 2003 North American blackout, over a larger area and/or at a worse time of year. I walked about six miles that day to get home: we had warm but not oppressively hot weather and plenty of daylight.

  19. #19 Omega Centauri
    February 24, 2011

    6,9,12,13 state pretty good facts.
    If I understood it correctly, the threat to the power grid is that the induced EMF (voltage) is low frequency and could push power transformers into saturation (the magnetic susceptability of transformer “iron” decreases at high field strength, so you could get high currents that burn them out. I suspect danger to electronics is minimal -that would require a high frequency voltage spike (I think). But the world manufacturing capacity to build large power transformers is small compared to the number that could theoretically be damaged.

    I don’t see grounding as being a solution. Maybe something that detects when DC biases are getting too big and then trips a shutdown…. Otherwise, it is monitoring, and pre-emptive shutdown as the only real protection.

  20. #20 stevecross
    February 24, 2011

    As one of the effects of CME’s are aurora borealis, there is a way to track the intensity of past events. The Carrington observed CME and the subsequent effects from that event on the earth was the aurora borealis was observed in the Mediterranean Sea. This CME would have knocked the world back to 1880′s technology levels.
    This same observeable effect has been documented back to the year 960. Large CME’s happen on a fairly regular basis, approximately every 150 to 200 years, it will be happening sooner rather than later.

  21. #21 Keith Harwood
    February 24, 2011

    Two points.

    Firstly, the real problem is the induced voltages in the long distance power lines. The differential voltages between conductors is likely, as has been said, to saturate the transformers and if this happens they will behave pretty much like resistors; that is, they dissipate all the power going into them. Not good. Even worse, though, is the conductor-earth loop. This will overcome the insulation within the transformers. Even less good.

    Second point. This could be avoided by disconnecting all transmission lines, in other words, shutting down the grid. The problem with that is, you can’t shut down the grid and expect to get it up again in less than many months. You have to divide the grid into very small pieces and connect them up very, very carefully. Otherwise the first generator you reconnect will hit a brick wall and disintegrate. It’s easy to add one more generator to a grid where all the other generators are already handling the load. It’s much more difficult to add stations to a grid where a significant portion has been blacked-out, but it has been done. Connecting stations to a non-working grid has never been done.

  22. #22 crd2
    February 25, 2011

    I grow tired of the media consistently over-hyping situations that have any chance of being harmful. Why would they give factual & unbiased information to the public when they can mislead us by easily skewing the details to make for a slightly more exciting story? And for what? A few extra hits on your web page?

  23. #23 ascensioncall
    February 25, 2011

    Excellent comments – as said, it’s a question of when, not if. Remember that by and large the media is controlled by those at the top of the pyramid (but that control is being taken away). I’d also be interested to read any comments about 75000 year cycles, when this one ends, 2012 and all the prophecies (maya etc).

  24. #24 stonemason89
    February 25, 2011

    Bad Sun! Bad!

  25. #25 Flower
    February 26, 2011

    The radiations from the sun can be very dangerous but now I’m afraid about radiations from nuclear bombs.

  26. #26 Anonymous
    February 28, 2011

    What if the solar radiation, was actually a gift to all of us? My understanding is that the energy from the solar flares and winds accompanying it contain properties… Properties of cosmic radiation that will help us reach higher levels of consciousness and bring all of humanity into a deep state of Divine Love for each other and all things.
    What blocks those properties is fear…hence all the fear mongering by certain media. This is actually a time to be rejoicing, to encourage yourself to discover your higher self (who you are already a part of) and to use this energy to transform all fear into Divine Love

  27. #27 fulkerson.gail
    February 28, 2011

    You are a voice of reason amid the voices of panic. Thank you.

  28. #28 epilactiva
    February 28, 2011

    Excellent comments – as said, it’s a question of when, not if. Remember that by and large the media is controlled by those at the top of the pyramid (but that control is being taken away). I’d also be interested to read any comments about 75000 year cycles, when this one ends, 2012 and all the prophecies

  29. #29 stuartg
    March 2, 2011

    Lovely shot of the aurora borealis!

    I alerted my son to the possibility of a good show from the aurora australis. Unfortunately for him, the weather at the southern end of New Zealand varied from full overcast to rain, so unless someone was extremely lucky, no photos of it from New Zealand.

  30. #30 Shannon
    March 4, 2011

    Hi there. Do you know how I could get regular real time (as close as pos) email updates on the solar flares and storms?

  31. #31 orjin krem
    March 4, 2011

    What if the solar radiation, was actually a gift to all of us? My understanding is that the energy from the solar flares and winds accompanying it contain properties… Properties of cosmic radiation that will help us reach higher levels of consciousness and bring all of humanity into a deep state of Divine Love for each other and all things.
    What blocks those properties is fear…hence all the fear mongering by certain media. This is actually a time to be rejoicing, to encourage yourself to discover your higher self (who you are already a part of) and to use this energy to transform all fear into Divine Love

  32. #32 Messier Tidy Upper
    February 14, 2012

    Great article – but it sure ain’t the way Phil Plait – the Bad Astronomer puts it in his book! ;-)

    Solar storms at the wrong times could shut down power grids with potentailly pretty nasty consequences from what I gather. Also a Carrington type white light flare as occurred in 1859 could be pretty nasty from what I gather reading a few articles elsewhere. Still, in general I’d have to agree with you. Well written as ever – thanks.