A minor solar storm is predicted to hit Earth tonight, and while the storm is classified as G1, the lowest level, the internet is, of course, overhyping the whole thing. The storm has the potential to create small disruptions to satellite communications and create very small surges in the power grid.
The earth is bombarded by radiation from the sun every second of every day. Occasionally, the sun whips out a high-radiation solar flare. While we’re protected from the flares here on the surface of the Earth, they do interact with our magnetosphere, dissipating and creating beautiful auroras. Sometimes, however, they are powerful enough to create havoc with older generation satellites and our power grids.
While this storm is pretty predicable, the impact of bigger geomagnetic events can be tough to figure out. That’s why, as Doris Elin Salazar at Space.com reports, the U.S. Geological Survey recently came up with a new way of predicting the effects of geomagnetic storms.
Salazar reports that currently researchers assess which areas in the United States are most vulnerable to geomagnetic storms using 1 dimensional models. But a new study in the journal Space Weather shows that 1D modeling is woefully inaccurate when compared to 3D modeling.
According to a press release, USGS researchers used 3D models to study earth below power lines in the mid-Atlantic region to assess the risk for blackout during a magnetic event. What they found is that the 3D risk models were very different from the risk assessment produced from the 1D models.
In particular, Salazar reports the team looked at a March 1989 blackout that occurred in Quebec during a geomagnetic storm. In previous studies researchers found that there were 16 vulnerable power lines in the mid-Atlantic that could have been responsible for the outage. Using the more realistic 3D data, however, indicated that there were 62 susceptible lines that may have been the culprit.
“Using the most accurate data available to determine vulnerable areas of the power grid can help maintain life-saving communications and protect national security during severe geomagnetic storms,” lead author Greg Lucas says. “Our study suggests that 3D data of the earth should be used whenever they are available.”
Figuring out those vulnerabilities is just the first step in hardening our satellites and power grid against a solar catastrophe.
Rebecca Boyle at NBC reports that researchers are currently working on technologies that would instantly dump any extra power poured into the grid by a solar storm, but the current best practice is to detect a major flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME)— a cloud of plasma ejected by the sun after a powerful flare—before it hits and shut down the grid. She reports that NASA and NOAA are working on new satellites that might give us an even better heads up when a CME is on the way.
Until we are able to neutralize the problem, humanity rolls the dice every time the sun burps. There is even a chance that a solar event could overload our electrical equipment and send us back to the Stone Age. It’s believed that if a CME hit the Earth it could fry pretty much everything plugged into the grid. It’s not just theoretical. It’s believed that a CME hit Earth in 1859 during what's known as the Carrington event which was so powerful it set telegraphs on fire. Just last September, the sun unleashed a flare classified as X9.3, the most powerful flare recorded in a decade, which also released a CME that luckily didn’t hit us.
It could all lead to chaos, societal collapse and, probably, cannibalism. Or we’ll get a really nice aurora, like the one expected to be visible from the northern tier of states over the next few days.