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An Exercise To Model a "Solar Radiation Katrina" 225

Posted by kdawson
from the transformer-fires dept.
Hugh Pickens writes in with an update on the warnings we discussed a year back about the dangers of a "solar Katrina." Now NPR is reporting on a tabletop exercise mounted in Boulder, Colorado by government workers attempting to model the effects of a worst-case solar electromagnetic storm. "...an exercise held in Boulder, Colorado, has investigated what might happen if the Earth were struck by a solar storm as intense as the huge storms that occurred in 1921 and 1859 — a sort of solar Katrina — and researchers found that the impact is likely to be far worse than in previous solar storms because of our growing dependence on satellites and other electronic devices that are vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation. 'In many ways, the impact of a major solar storm resembles that of a hurricane or an earthquake,' says FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, except that a solar Katrina would cause damage in a much larger area — power could be knocked out almost simultaneously in countries from Sweden to Canada and the US. In the exercise, the first sign of trouble came when radiation began disrupting radio signals and GPS devices, says Tom Bogdan, who directs the Space Weather Prediction Center. Ten or 20 minutes later electrically charged particles 'basically took out' most of the commercial satellites that transmit telephone conversations, TV shows, and huge amounts of data we depend on in our daily lives. But the worst damage came nearly a day later, when the solar storm began to induce electrical currents in high voltage power lines strong enough to destroy transformers around the globe, leaving millions of people in northern latitudes without power."
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An Exercise To Model a "Solar Radiation Katrina"

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  • by jameson (54982) on Monday March 01, 2010 @08:38AM (#31314956) Homepage

    I would expect CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs to be reasonably safe (though any reading devices might be temporarily disabled or permanently damaged.) But what about HDDs? Are they sufficiently shielded against this?

    Yes, losing power is a serious issue that will cost lives and losing GPS etc. would be very bad, too. But more and more of our cultural and scientific achievements are stored primarily on magnetic drives that may or may not be suitably shielded. How much at risk are those data, or should I invest in lead shielding for my backup storage drive?

    • by jibjibjib (889679) on Monday March 01, 2010 @08:41AM (#31314982) Journal
      Solar storms will have a big effect on long wires (e.g power grids, or telegraph in the 1859 storm) and radio communications, but not so much on individual pieces of equipment. Your computer and HDDs will still keep working, assuming you can get power for them.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by vlm (69642)

        Your computer and HDDs will still keep working, assuming you can get power for them.

        Plus or minus power surges on connected, powered up equipment.

        More accurately, everything on the shelves at your local computer store will be OK. Stuff thats plugged into a power outlet (ATX supplies never turn completely off), or has a long cable attached (ethernet?) maybe not so good.

  • 'basically took out' most of the commercial satellites that transmit telephone conversations, TV shows, and huge amounts of data we depend on in our daily lives.

    No phone sex, no Big Brother and no pr0n feeds? OMG! We're doomed!

  • by spxZA (996757) on Monday March 01, 2010 @08:41AM (#31314976)
    Do we not have any power transmission systems? Or just donkeys running on treadmills attached to dynamos? How will the such a solar storm affect our donkeys?
    • Move to Texas; they keep their electrical grid separate from the rest of the country's, and they're too far south to get the full brunt of the storm.
  • Pacemakers? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dazedNconfuzed (154242) on Monday March 01, 2010 @08:48AM (#31315048)

    As a genuine cyborg, my first concern about such "electrical storm/attack" fears & warnings is their impact on pacemakers and other life-sustaining electronic devices.

    Anyone have meaningful commentary thereon?

    • Re:Pacemakers? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by tagno25 (1518033) on Monday March 01, 2010 @08:56AM (#31315124)
      There would be almost no impact. The solar Storm would affect long pieces of conductive material 20+ meters in length.
      • by Bakkster (1529253)

        The only possible effect I can think of are with the inductive coils on cochlear implants (and possibly other implants). It would depend on the number of coils on the receiver as to the effect, and could range from severe noise and inability to hear (likely) to painful volume or electric shocks (less likely).

    • that is, a moving magnetic field inducing an electric current on a length of conductive material, usually a metal wire

      so unless your pacemaker features a lead which extends a couple of yards outside your chest, you'll be fine

      the problem is when the induction causes the transformers at the ends of high tensions wires to blow, with no replacement available

    • Only those that require recharging from mains electricity will be in danger... for those in this category, I would suggest investing in an execise bike and an energetic minion, and hooking the bike up to a dynamo to charge yourself.
    • I would not exactly make my life dependent on some comments on Slashdot, if you know what I mean. ;)
      Everyone here thinks he’s an expert.

      I’d ask someone (in private!) who actually earns money with getting your question right. :)

  • We can't convince them of the dangers of asteroid collisions so how the FSCK are they going to believe about this.

    They didn't believe about the dangers of Solar storms in 1989 so why would they buy it now?
    http://www.google.ca/search?q=hydro+quebec+solar+blackout [google.ca]

    • by Abcd1234 (188840)

      We can't convince them of the dangers of asteroid collisions so how the FSCK are they going to believe about this.

      Well, there is one major difference: Montreal proved that this kind of thing can happen, and will happen again, whereas we've yet to see a major city devastated by a meteor impact.

    • by natehoy (1608657)

      So don't depend on your government.

      Your house will be intact if a geomagnetic storm hits. You just need to make sure you are able to survive the zombie apocalypse that will surely follow.

      Umm, sorry, did I say that? Ignore it. I have no knowledge of an impending zombie apocalypse. Nor am I planning on being a zombie. Trust me.

      You'll just need to make sure you have enough food, water, and heat to get by for a few weeks in case of a temporary collapse of services.

      Oh, and canned brains. Keep lots of those

  • actually was originally forecasted to be a bad one and cause some serious problems and peak between 2010 and 2015. Now it's been forecasted to be milder and actually cause cooler seasons.

    Solar Cycle 24 Prediction Updated May 2009 [noaa.gov]
    2012-13: NOAA predicts solar cycle 24 ”weakest since 1928” with $1 trillion damages in worst case [examiner.com]. From second article:

    “A new active period of Earth-threatening solar storms will be the weakest since 1928 and its peak is still four years away, after a slow st

  • George Bush doesn't care about people with electronics!

    How about we called it Solargate? Solartanic? Solarpocalypse?

  • I was curious to see if they did any projection on whether the ISS is shielded enough for a storm of that scale. This article from 2005 (http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2005/27jan_solarflares.htm [nasa.gov]) seems to indicate ISS is heavily shielded. There was nothing in the OP's articles that indicated if the modeled storm would be strong enough to cause serious radiation damage to the residents.

    • They're also orbiting inside the Earth's magnetic field. So... They receive some protection from that.
    • This would be at least a Category 8 Flare - meaning No the ISS is not sheilded sufficiently to protect the astronauts from it. Keep in mind that some of the shielding that the ISS uses is provided by the Earth's Magetic field as the station is in LEO (low earth orbit) which is the reason it completes its orbit is 91 minutes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station [wikipedia.org]

  • I forget... (Score:5, Funny)

    by tooyoung (853621) on Monday March 01, 2010 @09:28AM (#31315586)
    ...as a Republican, am I supposed to believe that scientists understand solar weather or not?
  • by Culture20 (968837) on Monday March 01, 2010 @09:34AM (#31315686)
    Is it like an Andrew? Because I hate Andrews. (Andys are okay, but Andrews really get my goat. Andes are right out.)
    I didn't even read the summary because the title is stupid.
  • So what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by L4t3r4lu5 (1216702) on Monday March 01, 2010 @09:42AM (#31315814)
    A couple of months without electricity? I'll grab my camping stuff from the loft. Shelter, fire, water, food, in that order. I can get that within walking distance of my home, and I don't mean from a store.

    I know it's almost cliche to make a joke about "not going outside" on /. but I'm sure the people who can't fend for themselves will be able to get a job aiding the repair in exchange for their vital requirements.
    • Re:So what? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by natehoy (1608657) on Monday March 01, 2010 @11:37AM (#31317740) Journal

      It's not a matter of ability, it's a matter of population density. If you have access to enough food and water to live for several months and are reasonably assured there is no meaningful competition for those resources, you'll be fine.

      In more rural areas, this is a non-issue. I live on 3 acres of land that include a dug well I can dip from, and I'm used to power outages and have 550 gallons of Kerosene for my furnace that can also be used to keep my KeroSun going for the better part of a year. My house water pipes are designed to be drained to keep them from freezing in an extended outage. I have a deep freeze full of food (I'd have to cook it as it thaws and preserve it that way), and lots of canned vegetables and fruit in the basement. I could probably get through an entire winter in reasonable comfort.

      In a microapartment in the middle of the city, dependent on electricity for heat and city lines for water, something like this could turn into a big problem, really fast. They are currently being sustained by water that is treated and pumped to them. If power goes out, so do the treatment plants and the pumps. So you have to find untreated but safe water, and get it to them or them to it.

      And keep in mind, power outages caused by geomagnetic storms can be continental in scale, and the damage can take weeks or months to repair. It's not likely, but it is possible, and this article is about a not-unrealistic worst case scenario. So you aren't going to be able to depend on much of anything.

      How do you get fresh water every day to a city of 5 million people when there isn't electricity available for 500 miles in any direction? An 18-wheeler can haul about 8000 gallons of water. Assuming each person is limited to 2 quarts a day of water, you need over 300 trips per day. How do you distribute it? Can you sustain that for months? If you can't, where do you evacuate them all to? Is there enough water to sustain them? Is it safe, or does it need to be treated or boiled? Do they know how to get it without fouling it?

      Now, say this happens in January. How do you keep them warm?

      This article is about preparedness. Your house is fine, no need to grab the tent. Just be prepared for no electricity and no water for a month or so, and food may be hard to come by. Encourage your neighbors to do the same, or arm yourself. No big deal.

  • the problem is when the induction causes the transformers at the ends of high tensions wires to blow, with no replacement available

    you can build circuit breakers into such transformers, but a cost-benefit-risk analysis hasn't sided yet on the side of caution, even though the cost is not great. and no, we don't have a ready supply of the right transformers sitting around

    paradoxically, the poorest nations of the world will do fine, because they are less dependent on electricty and electronics, and are closer to the equator. while the electricity and electronics dependent northern hemisphere will experience severe long lasting societal shocks, involving the mass disruption of the internet, other communications, and all the vital uses the northern hemisphere has built into their electrical grid

    so we're all screwed when (not if) the next carrington effect is observed, out of simple laziness and complacency. we have had plenty warning, and we have freely chosen not to protect ourselves from this threat with a simple low cost circuit breaker style set up

    http://passingstrangeness.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/the-carrington-flare/ [wordpress.com]

    On September 2nd, 1859, the Earth went mad. Auroras lit up the sky over Australia, Japan, Colorado, and even as close to the equator as Venezuela. The worldwide telegraph system, which had gone from a laboratory curiosity to the wonder of the age in the previous twenty years, went haywire--sparking operators, scorching paper tapes, and mysteriously still transmitting messages between Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine although the batteries that ran the system had been disconnected out of self-defense. At Kew Gardens in London, a set of magnetometers designed to study the Earth's magnetic field started showing "disturbances of unusual violence and very wide extent" on August 27th; by September 2nd they were literally off the charts. No-one knew what was going on, with one possible exception. ...

    So equipped, Carrington was in a good position to catch an odd sight on September 1st, 1859 at 11:18 in the morning (if that seems peculiarly exact, bear in mind that the likeliest people to have precise chronometers at the time were ship's masters and astronomers). He was engaged in his usual observation schedule, projecting the Sun onto a large darkened piece of glass and measuring sunspot positions. In particular he'd been interested in an enormous sunspot cluster north of the solar equator which had appeared on August 26th. It was large enough to be of interest to astronomers world-wide, so there is at least one photograph of it--if you're trying to match it up with the chart above, remember that images in reflecting telescopes are inverted top to bottom.

    He happened to be looking at the cluster when four bright points of light suddenly appeared from within it. He took a moment to check that the full strength of the Sun hadn't somehow managed to come through some hole in his equipment then, satisfied that it was actually happening on the solar surface itself, called for someone to come confirm what he was seeing. As Carrington himself put it, then "on returning within 60 seconds, [he] was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled". It disappeared entirely within a few minutes.

    • by delt0r (999393)
      I have never seen a big transformer without a breaker. So OK I only worked with the utility for 2 years, but still. A breaker does a lot more than protect against a solar storm.
  • Really. It wouldn't be months before we got the power back on. It might be years. It takes electricity to communicate, move goods by train, get oil and coal from point a to point b. I don't think anyone has really thought through just how devastating this would be.

    • Agreed, especially since, as mentioned above, fixing the electrical grid and winding the millions of transformers required to do so would be effectively stalled, ironically, due to the failure of the power grid. Transformer factories use electricity too.
  • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:07AM (#31316312)
    A simulation or model that does not factor Nicolas Cage into any world periling scenario is incomplete.
  • The articles regarding multiple stations going over each other are intriguing. While propagation of radio varies depending on how the ionosphere reacts with sol, the question is could solar interference cause radio waves to change wavelengths? Meaning that 1440 ABC AM's broadcasts be shifted enough to interfere with 1400 or even 1350?

  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday March 01, 2010 @10:28AM (#31316594)
    Was about a mysterious EMP that knocked out all electricity networks and computers in the USA and difficulty of returning to pre-1880 lifestyle.
  • permanently or just until the storm passes?

    I remember when satellite news cast were just starting and sometime Sun activity would take them down, bit only for 30-60 seconds.

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