Power companies prepare as solar storms set to hit Earth

NEW YORK Sat Aug 6, 2011 1:04pm EDT


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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three large explosions from the Sun over the past few days have prompted U.S. government scientists to caution users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions over the next few days.

"The magnetic storm that is soon to develop probably will be in the moderate to strong level," said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

He said solar storms this week could affect communications and global positioning system (GPS) satellites and might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

An aurora, called aurora borealis or the northern lights in northern latitudes, is a natural light display in the sky in the Arctic and Antarctic regions caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere.

Major disruptions from solar activity are rare but have had serious impacts in the past.

In 1989, a solar storm took down the power grid in Quebec, Canada, leaving about six million people without power for several hours.

The largest solar storm ever recorded was in 1859 when communications infrastructure was limited to telegraphs.

The 1859 solar storm hit telegraph offices around the world and caused a giant aurora visible as far south as the Caribbean Islands.

Some telegraph operators reported electric shocks. Papers caught fire. And many telegraph systems continued to send and receive signals even after operators disconnected batteries, NOAA said on its website.

A storm of similar magnitude today could cause up to $2 trillion in damage globally, according to a 2008 report by the National Research Council.

"I don't think this week's solar storms will be anywhere near that. This will be a two or three out of five on the NOAA Space Weather Scale," said Kunches.


The NOAA Space Weather Scale measures the intensity of a solar storm from one being the lowest intensity to five being the highest, similar to scales that measure the severity of hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

The first of the three solar explosions from the sun this week already passed the Earth on Thursday with little impact, Kunches said, noting, the second was passing the Earth now and "seems to be stronger."

And the third, he said, "We'll have to see what happens over the next few days. It could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the second (storm) or do nothing at all."

Power grid managers receive alerts from the Space Weather Prediction Center to tell them to prepare for solar events, which peak about every 12 years, Tom Bogdan, director of the center said.

He said the next peak, called a solar maximum, was expected in 2013.

"We're coming up to the next solar maximum, so we expect to see more of these storms coming from the sun over the next three to five years," Bogdan said.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Alden Bentley)

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Comments (17)
MarkGoldes wrote:

A nuclear plant without grid power for a month can meltdown, releasing radioactivity downwind.

See the Aesop Institute website for maps worth 1,000 words as well as what can be done to minimize the impact.

Aug 06, 2011 11:31am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Penor_Water wrote:
Now’s our chance to escape, run everyone!!! run.

Aug 06, 2011 12:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
stambo2001 wrote:
Imagine if the North American power grid went down for a few weeks. The nuclear plants backup power supplies risk failing. There exists the probability of multiple Fukishima’s across the US.

That’s worse case scenario. Just watching 330 million people try to scramble and survive without electricity for a few weeks would be comical. I bet more than half of them would kill the other half off.

No preparation outside of the issuance of martial law. Get on yer knees and pray, cause if the grid goes down you’ll probably be killed by your neighbors for your food or your women. Mans civilized nature is only as deep as his access to convenience.

Aug 06, 2011 2:48pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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