Are We Prepared for a Catastrophic Solar Storm?

A solar disaster isn't a question of if, but when--and it looks like soon

Plasma Shock

Plasma Shock

Hurtling at up to six million mph through space, a coronal mass ejection produces shock waves that can damage satellites and electrical surges that can bring down the grid, potentially leading to nuclear meltdown.Paul Souders/Getty Images

One of the biggest disasters we face would begin about 18 hours after the sun spit out a 10-billion-ton ball of plasma--something it has done before and is sure to do again. When the ball, a charged cloud of particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME), struck the Earth, electrical currents would spike through the power grid. Transformers would be destroyed. Lights would go out. Food would spoil and--since the entire transportation system would also be shut down--go unrestocked.

Within weeks, backup generators at nuclear power plants would have run down, and the electric pumps that supply water to cooling ponds, where radioactive spent fuel rods are stored, would shut off. Multiple meltdowns would ensue. "Imagine 30 Chernobyls across the U.S.," says electrical engineer John Kappenman, an expert on the grid's vulnerability to space weather. A CME big enough to take out a chunk of the grid is what scientists and insurers call a high-consequence, low-frequency event. Many space-weather scientists say the Earth is due for one soon. Although CMEs can strike anytime, they are closely correlated to highs in the 11-year sunspot cycle. The current cycle will peak in July 2013.

The most powerful CME in recorded history occurred during a solar cycle with a peak similar to the one scientists are predicting in 2013. During the so-called Carrington Event in 1859, electrical discharges in the U.S. shocked telegraph operators and set their machines on fire. A CME in 1921 disrupted radio across the East Coast and telephone operations in most of Europe. In a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report, scientists estimated that a 1921-level storm could knock out 350 transformers on the American grid, leaving 130 million people without electricity. Replacing broken transformers would take a long time because most require up to two years to manufacture.

"We need to build protection against 100-year solar storms."Once outside power is lost, nuclear plants have diesel generators that can pump water to spent-fuel cooling pools for up to 30 days. The extent of the meltdown threat is well-documented. A month before the Fukushima plant in Japan went offline in March, the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a committee of engineers, filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommending the augmentation of nuclear plants' emergency backup systems. The petition claims that a severe solar storm would be far worse than a 9.0-magnitude quake and could leave about two thirds of the country's nuclear plants without power for one to two years.

Preventing a surge from a CME would be costly. With enough warning (at least a few hours, probably), power companies could shut transformers off entirely, turning them back on after the storm. But shutting down the grid on such a large scale would cost billions. To confidently do so, forecasting must be accurate.

Last October, NASA scientists announced its Solar Shield program to monitor solar eruptions and predict storms. Though a good step, the system uses a satellite that was launched in 1997 and designed to run just five years. No other country has anything similar, or as advanced.

Our backup systems aren't in place yet, either. The Department of Homeland Security is funding the development of an emergency replacement transformer, but it won't be field-ready for several years. Kappenman has developed a $100,000 capacitor to block storm-induced surges, but these are unproven in emergency situations. "A massive solar storm is a 'low probability' event the same way a 100-year flood is," Thomas Popik, the author of the NRC petition, says. "Just as we build levees to protect against 100-year floods, we need to build protection against 100-year solar storms."

Before the Impact: Coronal Mass Ejection

Before the Impact: Coronal Mass Ejection

Ejection The sun regularly releases bubbles of gas particles called coronal mass ejections. Many CMEs hurtle harmlessly through space, but about 30 collide with Earth every year, many glancing off its atmosphere. A direct hit from a very large CME is a one-in-100-year event. In Transit CMEs travel at up to six million miles per hour and can reach Earth in as little as 18 hours. As they move through space, CMEs produce shock waves that can damage satellites, and their high-energy proton radiation increases astronauts' risk of cancer. Collision How the CME strikes the planet's electromagnetic shield determines how disastrous the storm will be. If its magnetic field is parallel with the Earth's, the planet's shield will replace repel it. But if its magnetic field is aligned opposite the Earth's, the two magnetic fields connect, which allows the CME's charged particles to enter the atmosphere.NASA
After Impact: The Surge

After Impact: The Surge

Charged particles create ground currents by magnetic induction--the same process occurs when a magnet is near a loop of wire and generates an electrical current in the wire. This then causes a surge through power lines that can melt the copper component inside transformers. Such a surge in the U.S. could leave 130 million people without power.Lali Masriera via Wikimedia
Defense Systems

Defense Systems

STEREO The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory [pictured] monitors the sun with two satellites on opposite sides of the star. Together they capture complete images of its surface, including CMEs. Warning Time: 24-48 hours SOHO The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory combines its findings with STEREO's images to create a 3-D model, which helps predict when a CME might strike, plus or minus seven hours. Warning Time: 24-48 hours ACE Launched in 1997, the Advanced Composition Explorer will eventually transmit measurements of CMEs to anticipate electrical surges and their impact on the grid. Warning Time: 1 hourNASA/JHU APL
Defense Systems That Won't Warn Us

Defense Systems That Won't Warn Us

SDO NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft [pictured] was launched last year to monitor the sun's magnetic fields and gather data to determine how space weather is created. No warning time. CSWL With its gamma-ray-burst detector and 3-D plasma analyzer, the Comprehensive Solar Wind Laboratory aids predictions of how Earth-bound CMEs might affect the planet's magnetic field. No warning time.NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
Prevention

Prevention

Transformer Replacement Conventional transformers take years to manufacture and can weigh 100 tons. The Homeland Security-funded Recovery Transformer project, or RecX, is developing a temporary transformer that can be easily stored, moved on flatbed trucks, and installed within a few days during an emergency. Ultimately, the RecX team intends to build solid-state transformers that are smaller and lighter and can be moved by helicopter. Surge Protection The Neutral Capacitor and Bypass Device, developed by independent electrical engineer John Kappenman, uses a simple capacitor to block space-storm-induced DC currents from surging through transformers. It also includes a rapid-bypass circuit (or vacuum tube) for a path to the ground for normal AC-current problems caused by storms, tree limbs or errant birds. Kappenman estimates that protecting the country's entire grid from a massive CME would require 5,000 of his devices.FEMA via Wikimedia
The Possible Fallout

The Possible Fallout

Lights A 1989 solar storm brought down Quebec's power grid, leaving millions in the dark for nine hours. A larger storm will affect hundreds of millions of people. Traffic signals not equipped with backup battery power (most of New York City's) would also fail immediately. Transportation Without power, gas pumps don't work. Trains won't run either: During the 2003 Northeast blackout, 400,000 commuters were stranded in the New York City subway system. Communication Surges knock out landlines and cellular networks. Both have backup systems that run for just a few days at most.Wikimedia
More Fallout: No Medicine, No Water

More Fallout: No Medicine, No Water

Medicine With transportation systems down, hospital generators run out of fuel after a few weeks, or even days. Ventilators and heart and lung pumps will no longer work. Drugs that need refrigeration will soon spoil. Insulin goes bad after 28 days. Water Pumps Municipal pumps fail, causing backflow--water runs backward through pipes and gets contaminated with bacteria. Water pumps shut off in residential homes and apartments, leaving millions without potable water. Cities issue boiling advisories, but most stoves can't work without power or natural gas. After a month running backup diesel and batteries, nuclear plants' water pumps for cooling pools stop. Spent fuel rods melt down, and radiation can escape into the air.Michelle Tribe via Wikimedia