Is the U.S. Ready for a Solar Storm?

By Chris Mooney | May 27, 2009 10:36 am

Want to be frightened? Read this blog post, then this longer New Scientist feature that it partly draws upon. There, you will learn that a threat we barely even bother to discuss–space weather, and more specifically, solar storms–has the capacity to quite literally shut down modern society, to throw us almost back to the Stone Age. To quote:

It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is possible. The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma – charged high-energy particles – some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see “When hell comes to Earth”). If one should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth’s magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer’s magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer’s copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts….

According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people. From that moment, the clock is ticking for America.

One has to wonder: Are President Obama’s science advisers reading this? I sure as hell hope so.

If there’s one single reason that we wrote Unscientific America, it’s that we feel so desperately the need to forge a more scientifically literate culture. There are many science-related dangers that most people have never even heard of, but that we simply cannot ignore–or rather, if we ignore them, the consequences could be literally catastrophic.

How do you get a presentist, entertainment-addled society like ours to take real, science-centered risks seriously, and more generally to see how science will transform the future that lies ahead of us?

I’m not positive that we have a full answer to that question, though I think we do have a partial one. But we’re sure of this: If we can’t think about, plan about, and pay serious attention to things like space weather, then we are not going to fare well as a people, or a country, in the future that’s coming.


Comments (18)

  1. Matt

    Chris, I think you answered your question while asking it: Q) How do you get an entertainment addled society to take a science risk seriously? A) Make a movie about it. “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” did the same for asteroid hunting. Then there was that RIDICULOUS movie, “The Core”. I can’t say that The Core raised awareness about a real problem, but MAN did it suck. Quick, get me Hollywood on the phone…I’ve got something to pitch.

  2. Atoyota

    I’ve been on about this for over a year now.
    It’s not only a very real threat to transformers (aka Carrington event 1859), but also direct damage to semiconductors. Magnetic pulses destroy microchips…. Not to mention clearing out the space junk but also every other satellite including the ISS and Hubble.

    But all that depends on the severity of the event not to mention timing/accuracy. It is somewhat random… and not dependant on the intensity of sunspot activity, although with more activity such events are more frequent.

    I have a theory on the cycle… not sure it’s shared, but it makes sense.

  3. p

    It doesn’t seem there’s a whole lot we can do about solar activity, or our location in space. The only thing we can do as a nation, if we want to avoid vulnerability, is to stop ticking off other countries, so, in case our power grid is interrupted, we won’t be as likely to be invaded by a hostile nation (which will likely be affected as well). We also must stop relying on Kraft and Heinz and start producing and buying foods locally again. There was a time when people in small towns didn’t have to drive 30 miles to buy groceries. Besides, if there was any prolonged fallout from a solar storm, we probably would run out of fuel, as refining would be at a standstill and our pumps wouldn’t be able to move what fuel we do have. We could always use natural gas, but not everyone has the luxury of owning property with natural gas in the ground, much less, getting it out of the ground and storing it.
    Move to a place with sufficient groundwater and learn to grow your own food while you can. We have lived without modern conveniences before, just not so many of us. People need to work towards self-sustenance if we are to survive any sort of global catastrophe, which is inevitable on a long enough time line.

  4. Jason

    A) How do you mitigate or stop the impact of the magnetic freakout?
    B) How much would it cost an already cash strapped society?

    As for society ‘getting back’ to its roots. Sure, it sounds idyllic and easy, however we have a population far too great for the land to support without augmenting it through fertilizer (often made by chemical processes that would become unavailable with a lack of electricity), or massive harvesters that would eventually run out of fuel. Millions would die, millions more would slaughter each other over limited resources and that would just be the start of our implosion.

    Even small communities, without power for a few days, require extensive support from state and federal government to survive. Widen that to the entire globe and we’d see a collapse within days. Hooray!

  5. Jo

    Matt, you’re absolutely right. We had a really good run of disaster movies for a number of years there: twisters, volcanoes, hurricanes, asteroids, ice ages (which apparently act like massive flash-freezing hurricanes). This one seems a no-brainer!

    Will the 24-hour warning systems that we hope to eventually develop allow us to avoid this? Can we protect ourselves without actually adding shielding to the entire grid? Can we just power down and ride it out, if we know it’s coming?

  6. A combination of powering down, temporarily breaking up the grid, and having spare transformers in place would go a long way to help make a CME survivable.

    Putting in orders for spares of every transformer in the country would certainly stimulate the economy.

    I’d also love to see every telephone substation and cell phone tower have a few solar panels and a flywheel power-backup system.

  7. Michael

    This is like the missing corner stop sign–one won’t be put in until some folks are killed. At any given moment the solar disturbance is unlikely, as we are currently in a historical low point for sunspot activity, which means the sun is pretty calm. However, this is just one of the countless galactic and universe turmoils which can wipe us all out. Prhaps best that we just don’t think about our violent time-space too much…

  8. opossum

    I think all of our problems are a result of overpopulation. Pollution, deforestation, epidemics, and extinctions have all been spurred by man’s greed. No couple should have more than two children, no matter how much money they make. Because, though they might not be a burden to the economy, they are a burden ecologically: paper goods, pharmaceuticals, plastics, clothing, food…consumption, consumption, consumption. What else do humans do besides manipulate their surroundings with power lines, roads, fences, and buildings. While there are people who help, none of them net a positive result. We will continue to drain our resources, as long as we keep multiplying. Bring it on, Terminator!

  9. All we need to do is watch “Knowing” with Nicholas Cage (almost) saving the planet from a freak solar flare.

  10. Chris,
    Clearly the stress of being a student again, publishing a book, trying to save sceince journalism, and keeping up the blog has gotten to you. In your previous incarnation, after all that you’d have done the research and pointed out that NOAA has a Space Weather Prediction function
    as part of the National Weather Service. Now, I’ll grant you that they are probably underfunded, and the devastation of such an event is likely to be at least as bad as you quote, if not worse. And asking if the Administration is aware is a fair topic, though I think these folks would argue they are doing everything they can to make this issue a priority for the White hOuse.

  11. It is time for us to pay attention to space weather i guess.

  12. MadScientist

    We’ve been noticing the effects of Coronal Mass Ejections on earth at least since shortly after WW2. I’m talking about power grids being knocked out. Who knows how long people have been noticing one of the other effects (aurorae). All of Canada is more susceptible to the problem than, say, New York and Massachussets. Given the two major power failures in New York in the past 40-something years (the last one being only a few years ago), we do have a pretty good idea of what will happen.

    I don’t think the general public cares nor wants to know nor really needs to know of problems associated with CMEs (although I wouldn’t complain about a good program about it so that curious people at least have a chance of hearing about it). As long as the power companies have a plan to put in effect when the power grid is whacked by this phenomenon again (there is nothing to do but restore power distribution when the magnetic disturbance settles down) and people operating critical radio-based services are aware of the possible minutes to hours of radio communications outages in some frequency bands, I don’t see any terribly big problem. Hospitals often have their own emergency generators to maintain full operational capacity when grid power is lost, so I don’t see any big deal in these events.

  13. MadScientist

    @opossum: Although I agree that the world is vastly overpopulated and that governments should plan for a controlled gradual reduction in populations, I have to disagree with the notion that people with more money would have more kids. Except for a few notable philanderers, rich folk usually have fewer kids and HUGE families are often poor folk.

  14. WCG

    No, MadScientist, this IS a big deal. These are huge, multi-million dollar transformers, too expensive to keep many spares around and currently taking months to manufacture new ones (they do fail, sometimes, and it’s a very big deal even when it’s one at a time). If we lose a bunch at one time, we’re toast.

    We CAN prepare for this, though, if we want to do it. The first thing we need is early warning. Right now, we don’t have that. And we need to have procedures and relays in place to trip out these transformers (automatically, since manual tripping would be too slow). Yes, that would likely black out large areas of the country, but only temporarily. If we let our transformers melt down, we’ll be black for years. How many people will die with no electricity for YEARS?

    But will we prepare for this as we should? Doubtful. No utility will do it on their own. Come on, prepare for a disaster BEFORE it’s ever happened? And when it will cost big bucks, too? Not a chance. This must be required by governments, or it won’t happen at all.

  15. Pat Donnelly
    Electric Universe also good

    Remember that those who wish to control us want us to fear things so that they can answer those fears.

    You live your life!

    How come that we find evidence of past humans living in caves? Join the Troglodytes?

  16. opossum

    @MadScientist- You’re right about most large families being poor. What I was trying to say is, the impact on society that any large family makes isn’t strictly economical. Just because a household supports itself financially doesn’t mean it isn’t a detriment to our resources.

  17. Northseeker

    The meltdown of the power grids would be one very bad event, but only a small part of the bigger problem of reducing most all of our electronic gear to rubble. Just about everything depends on small computers. What would it be like without GPS, cash registers, credit card machines, phone systems, cars, trucks, planes and trains? What about bank transactions, controls for nuclear arsenals and computerized armies? Can anyone name a device our society depends upon that is not computerized and therefore very susceptible to such massive magnetic charges? Those living without modern conveniences will fair the best. Ironic, to say the least.

  18. Erasmussimo

    Let’s differentiate between transformer destruction and electronics destruction. The latter requires a completely different problem called an EMP (“Electromagnetic Pulse”) which is a sudden, sharp event, not at all what we get from a CME. Thus, although we’d lose power systems, the electronic devices would not be affected by a CME.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


See More

Collapse bottom bar