October 14th, 2011 • 5:32 PM
Space Weather Event Hits D.C.

by Meghan Rouillard

Last Thursday, Ben Deniston, Alicia Cerretani and I attended an event on Capitol Hill called, “Space Weather Threats to the Electric Grid.” We’ve featured the threat that a severe geomagnetic storm can pose to the electric grid on the LPAC site before, including in an article by Laurence Hecht, The Solar Storm Threat to America's Power Grid. We decided to take the opportunity of such a discussion of reality in D.C. to get up to date on this, including where we stand as far as preparedness, etc. A couple things were clear: 1) We aren’t well prepared, at all. Not only does the United States no longer manufacture the high voltage transformers which would be knocked out in the event of such a geomagnetic storm (they are currently only manufactured by Germany and South Korea), but, indicative of the state of our extended sensorium, in need of a serious upgrade, the very satellite which warns us of an oncoming geomagnetic storm is getting old, and in need of replacement (at the event, I met someone who helped design this satellite in the 1980’s, who insisted it must be replaced--it’s been up there since ‘97). 2) Under Obama, we have no good prospect of overcoming, without massive damage to infrastructure and likely human life, the real threat posed by a severe space weather event.

How serious is the threat of a severe space weather event to the global electric grid? Pretty serious. Here’s what we know: in 1859, the most extreme geomagnetic storm on record hit earth (obviously, we didn’t have the ability to detect these nor their threat to the electric grid for many years prior), producing auroras visible as far south as Cuba, caused telegraph system failures (in other cases, allowed systems disconnected from their power sources to continue sending messages!). "People in the northeastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora." according to one account. The CME which preceded the storm reached earth in 18 hours, whereas this “trip” usually takes 3-4 days! This event, the so-called Carrington Event, was also reviewed in an article by Ben, NAWAPA and Cosmic Radiation.


Carrington's sketch of the sunspots which caused the 1859 geomagnetic storm

In 1921, we faced another extreme storm which resulted in widespread radio disruption, but the overall effects were still limited because the world was so much less dependent on electrical systems. But in the modern electrical era we’ve had two smaller but still damaging events and ones in 1989 and 2003 which resulted in power outages and damage to satellites. These storms could have been about 1/5 the size of the Carrington event. In 1989, notably, Hydro-Quebec lost power generating capabilities for about 9 hours, leaving 6 million Canadians in the dark. According to a study by Metatech Corporation, an event of the strength of the 1921 event, let alone another “Carrginton-style event,” could ostensibly leave 130 millions Americans without power for up to months. Yep. That’s right. One presenter joked that the best a statistician could do was to say that these event appear to occur event 75 years, since we’ve been hit by two extreme storms in the past 150 years. William Murtagh, the Program Coordinator of the NOAA space weather prediction center, noted that these extreme storms have often occurred during especially weak solar cycles (he also said he’d like to know more about the space weather connection to “earth weather”, when told about the recent study connecting weak solar cycles to megaquakes, Sunspots and Mega Earthquakes. He said people have been asking him about this). And you thought we had nothing to worry about after 2013, the peak of our current solar cycle? Now, get this: the ACE satellite (Advanced Composition Explorer), currently located at the L-1 Lagrange point, tells us of an oncoming geomagnetic storm. Were we to experience a Carrington style event, orders of magnitude more powerful anything we’ve seen since, this satellite would tell us that we were going to be hit by a much weaker storm. That’s to say, it “maxes out” at a reading which is much weaker than what another Carrington event would be. Let that sit for a moment, and think about what you’re willing to do to get Obama out so we can upgrade our satellites!


Drawing of ACE satellite

To further understand exactly how the geomagnetic storm induced currents can damage electrical systems, Idaho National Labs is currently carrying out preliminary tests, by sending controlled power surges into their own electrical transmissions lines (without leaving everyone in Idaho without power temporarily!). The National Defense University, which helped host the event, said that they has been independently asked by various branches of government (DOE, DOD, the White House, etc.) to investigate the danger of space weather threats.

It must be said that the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) congressional caucus (also co-hosts) had a rather unbalanced focus going into the event, focusing on the threat that Iran will “EMP us,” or even Russia or China. This outlook should be dumped. In fact, we should be collaborating SDI-style with these nations to further the scientific and technological development we need to understand these events and what’s needed to protect our people--at least one presenter seemed receptive to this idea. The members of the EMP caucus need to see our 9-11 video, and get more of an education on the space weather threat per se.

At the end, one presenter noted that we tend to be culturally blocked when faced with the need to meet long term challenges and threats. He mentioned the weak levees in New Orleans, in desperate need of repair, before Katrina, but everyone said “We’ll never get hit by a Cat. 5,” and even the example of the financial collapse, which we had signs of for years in advance (won’t get into the silly fears some expressed about their electronic financial assets being wiped out by an extreme solar storm!). “Americans need to be educated on this,” one guy insisted. Someone else then mentioned that Americans have “disaster fatigue.” I’d qualify that. If Americans have something called disaster fatigue, it’s only because they see that we have a President who has publicly declared the inability to forecast weather, almost categorically, and who has done virtually nothing to help out citizens in tornado, hurricane, and flood ravaged parts of the country, let alone our neighboring countries like Haiti. If Americans have trouble grasping the implications of a severe space weather event, sure, it’s do in part to their lack of education, and a lackadaisical, culturally-enforced attitude. But the “elephant in the room” as Ben put it during a question he posed in one of the sessions, is having a government, and an Executive Branch headed by a President who won’t allow us to act on such knowledge, because of his (and the Empire’s) policies. It’s high-past time to move over, Barry.

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