A storm from the sun: Astronomers watching for potential catastrophe

A solar flare erupts from the sun on July 1, 2002.

The sun blew up Thursday night. It threw off a giant plume of gas and matter that wowed the people watching.

To follow solar flare activity

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To follow solar flare activity, go to spaceweather.com.

Meanwhile, astronomers around the world warily monitored the “giant prominence.” The plumes tend to cause solar storms, and big plumes can cause big storms.

What’s a solar storm?

The sun explodes in flares and bursts of “solar wind,” releasing energy pent up in magnetic fields, usually above sun spots.

Along with light and heat, the sun emits a constant stream of particles. Coronal mass ejections from flares or winds cause bombardments of those particles.

The particle bombardment, or “storm,” collides with Earth’s atmosphere, releasing energy-like bolts of lightning.

SOURCES: Spaceweather.com. Space.com

So what?

Solar storms shoot through space and strike Earth. A large enough storm could create power surges that would wreak havoc on the electric power grid, disable communication systems and satellites among other damage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Cellphones wouldn’t work. Neither would radar or navigational gear. Lights wouldn’t turn on. Computers couldn’t connect online. The technological world would go dark.

Farfetched, you say? Not so much. Astronomers are watching as the sun goes through a period of higher solar flare activity, causing solar storms. They’re worried about the next Big One.

In 1859, a “super solar flare” erupted, sending out a storm that collided with Earth’s atmosphere and lit up the skies as far south as Jamaica with red, green and purple displays — auroras like the Northern Lights.

That storm sent a power surge through telegraph lines so strong it shocked the tapping operators and set telegraph paper on fire. The frightened operators disconnected batteries, but so much power hummed through the lines that messages were transmitted without the batteries.

If the same size storm were to occur today, the power surge would fry the electric and electronic worlds.

Astronomers said a storm that damaging isn’t likely in the current higher activity cycle, but it can’t be ruled out. The sun already has thrown out a few sizeable storms, including one last year that knocked out at least one satellite servicing mobile phones for hundreds of thousands of emergency workers, according to NASA.

Utilities are vulnerable enough that late last year FERC ordered the power providers to develop new standards on how to deal with the threat.

The sun tends to run in 11-year ebb-and-rise cycles of solar flares and storms. The current one peaks later this year.

A damaging storm is a “low frequency, high impact” event, FERC Commissioner John R. Norris said in a statement. It “demands that we take precautions necessary to prevent, limit or contain the potential impact.”

Utilities depend on maintaining a balance between the electricity being supplied and that being used to keep from overwhelming the grid.

They bank on avoiding a “cascading event,” a massive blackout, by gradually tamping down any power surge as it moves through interconnected grids of lines. The grid here interconnects with most of the Southeast.

Utilities count on damage being confined enough that emergency repairs can be made on a regional basis, like for a hurricane.

But “there hasn’t been a whole lot of experience with these kinds of events,” said Mollie Gore of Santee Cooper.

“A lot of it has to do with geology. We don’t have the iron and elements in rock here to conduct electricity,” said Robert Yannity of SCE&G.

That’s mistaken, said John Kappenman, president of Storm Analysis Consultants, who has pushed the industry to recognize its vulnerability.

“The threat is to a very wide area of the grid,” he said. A geomagnetic surge conducted and strengthened by Appalachian rocks can travel throughout the Southeast.

For electric power, the worst case scenario is a “black start,” a catastrophic power failure. If that happens, the entire grid must be powered up again piece by piece. It would start with nuclear plants, in order to prevent a second catastrophe. Power would be fed last to residential customers. The process could take days, Yannity conceded.

So far, a 1859-sized solar storm isn’t a great concern during this cycle, said Varsha Kulkarni, astronomy professor and department chair at the University of South Carolina. This peak doesn’t appear to be out of the ordinary so far.

“But of course, it’s hard to predict the strength of the next storm we get,” she said.



Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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