On the eve of daylight-saving time, came a solar storm that was expected to beat the daylights out of the Earth’s magnetic field.
Earthlings braced for breakdowns in radio and satellite communications and possible damage to electricity grids.
Nothing bad happened, as it turned out. Depending on a solar storm’s magnetic orientation, it can be large and fast yet still harmless. That’s what happened this time.
Do not rest easy. More and greater magnetic activity will continue in the months ahead as we close in on the so-called solar maximum in 2013, when activity in the sun’s magnetic field reaches its 11-year peak.
So what can happen? A solar storm can burn out electronic systems in satellites, cause airplanes flying over the poles to lose radio communication with the ground and skew GPS data. Worst of all, by shaking the earth’s magnetic field, it can send a surge of power through electricity grids, overloading and damaging transformers.
In March 1989, a brief fit by our friend the sun caused a loss of power in the grid serving the entire Canadian province of Quebec for nine hours, and damaged transformers in the U.K. and New Jersey.
So what can we do? For starters, we can strengthen our ability to predict storms. The potential danger begins when a cloud of charged particles bursts from the sun’s atmosphere. Data from special NASA satellites, including a pair that reveals the 3-D structure of coronal mass ejections from the sun, let scientists know when such clouds are headed our way. Then, critically, NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer probe, which floats between the Earth and the sun a million miles away from us, measures the speed and power of the storm as it streams past.
Data from the ACE probe on the size of the storm is crucial, because it enables scientists at the national Space Weather Prediction Center to warn satellite operators and airlines if they need to take precautions.
But ACE is now 15 years old, and no longer considered dependable when buffeted by the kind of heavy magnetic storm it’s meant to measure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the space weather service, plans to replace it with a new Deep Space Climate Observatory, which could be launched as early as 2014. Congress gave NOAA $30 million for DSCOVR this year, and President Barack Obama has requested $27 million for 2013. It is essential that this be approved.
We should also shore up our electric power grids. Fortunately, technology exists to protect grids from magnetic disturbances. Blocking devices -- in the form of capacitors or resistors -- can be installed to prevent the kind of steady currents induced by solar storms from entering the grid and interrupting the regular alternating current. Few grids have them, however.
It’s easy enough to understand why power companies might not see a need. Solar storms with the strength to cause real trouble are rare, occurring perhaps once or twice in a century. But as power grids have grown ever larger, more interconnected and more efficient, they have become all the more vulnerable to big fluctuations in the magnetic field.
State public utility commissions should demand that grid operators disclose what safeguards they have in place, and require them to ensure that they can withstand the strongest solar storms. Otherwise, we’ll all get burned.
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