Fire in the Sky
Scientists warn of a solar flare large enough to paralyze our electrified world
By Joan Trossman Bien 11/21/2012
If you have never heard of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, then you have not spent any time worrying about an EMP causing the end of civilization as we know it.
But scientists and some policymakers worry about such a thing happening, and for very good reason.
If an EMP were to occur over the United States, caused either by a particularly violent solar storm or by a small nuclear device detonated many miles above the ground, chances are high that the country’s entire electrical grid would fail, as a massive surge of electricity would fry the huge transformers that keep the grid humming. Satellites we rely on for navigation and communication would be damaged beyond repair, and society would crumble into a dysfunctional scramble for survival. The very necessities of life, such as clean water, food, medications, transportation, even government, would all either disappear or be in very short supply.
There are sharp differences of opinion among experts regarding the likelihood of an EMP occurring anytime soon. But, nuclear attack aside, given the fact that extreme solar events happen once or twice a decade, “It is just a question of not if, but when the Earth happens to be in the path of these kinds of [solar] storms,” according to Dan Baker, director of Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado.
What exactly is a solar flare and why should anyone care?
Marco Velli, a senior researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory whose expertise is in solar research, has been named principal investigator for NASA’s Solar Probe Plus, scheduled to launch in 2018. The project will place a satellite into orbit around the sun — inside its corona, far closer than ever before — as part of a mission to study solar weather.
“A solar flare is essentially an explosion,” Velli explained, adding that it sends out a huge amount of plasma or high-energy gas from the sun called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). “The energy is equivalent to several thousand atomic bombs … accelerating high energy particles to very high speeds, like cosmic rays.”
The potential damage, Velli added, depends on where the blast actually hits.
“When one of these big CMEs takes off and is directed toward Earth, it can cause big changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. This can induce currents in the Earth’s ionosphere and also in things on the ground, like big power stations, and it can disrupt the grid. It is the kind of thing that can fry the transformers so they cannot be used again. That’s bad,” he said.
Dr. Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, put this fairly common event of solar flares into perspective.
“For thousands of years, the only impact was the display of the aurora borealis. It didn’t have much of an influence on life on Earth until the era of high technology,” Krupp said.
Baker described how our lives have changed so quickly.
“I like to say that modern humans have embedded us within a cyber-electric cocoon that surrounds the entire Earth. In many ways, every one of our modern technologies can be affected by solar storms,” he said.
Experts agree that the most damaging aspects of a solar storm are large CMEs, which, Baker said, “are very large blobs of material that are expelled from the sun and can be huge in dimension. It is often noted that the largest of these can be moving at many millions of miles an hour.”
Explaining how CMEs damage electronics, Baker said, “When one of these big CMEs takes off, when it is directed towards the Earth, it can cause big changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. It can charge up the Earth’s magnetosphere with strong, high-energy particles as well. This can induce currents in the Earth’s ionosphere and also in things on the ground, like big power stations, and it can disrupt the grid.”
The Big Daddy of modern solar storms, called the Carrington Event for well-known British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, occurred on Sept. 1, 1859.
At the time, Carrington was just setting up his London solar observatory to chart an active solar storm. The telescope aimed at the sun projected an image that Carrington could trace on paper. As he was drawing the sunspots, according to modern-day accounts from a number of Web sites covering the subject, “two patches of intensely bright and white light” appeared on his screen. They were located in one large group of sunspots. Carrington left the room to notify another scientist, but by the time he returned about five minutes later, the event had ended. Another amateur astronomer, Roger Hodgson, also observed the phenomenon. Over at Kew Observatory in London, a magnetometer needle dangled from a thread. It began to flail and bounce. They had just observed the beginnings of a solar super storm.
Before dawn the next morning, the skies went psychedelic with auroras as far south as Hawaii and Panama. Bright swirls of reds, greens and purples lit up the still-dark early morning skies. Baker reported at a geophysics meeting in 2010 that the light was so bright, “people in the northeastern US could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora.”
The Charleston Mercury ran a first-person account from a woman on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. “The eastern sky appeared of a blood red color,” she wrote. “It seemed brightest exactly in the east, as though the full moon, or rather the sun, was about to rise. It extended almost to the zenith. The whole island was illuminated. The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible, which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”
The New York Times reported that people stood on rooftops and gathered on sidewalks to watch “the heavens … arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they had been for years.”
The most sophisticated mode of communication at the time was the telegraph, and when the supercharged CME hit the Earth’s magnetic field, telegraph wires surged with the electrical currents. It blew out the machines at some places. At others, the sparks caused fires. When operators turned off their batteries, the telegraph machines continued to work.
The Carrington Event was extraordinarily huge. Ice core samples have revealed it was double the size of any other solar storm in the preceding 500 years. And scientists say it will happen again, possibly soon.
Solar flares are not unusual. On March 13, 1989, a CME blew out power in Quebec, leaving 6 million people in the dark. In 1921, a solar storm hit, but didn’t cause much damage. Today, such an occurrence would have darkened half of North America.
Last summer, Baker said there was a very close call. “Just on July 22, there was a very ugly, mean-looking active region on the sun that had moved across the face of the sun. A satellite was watching it. A huge flare, and then a CME, came at the spacecraft and it was moving at the highest recorded speed that has been seen in the modern Space Age. It reached the satellite in 17 hours. That’s an hour faster than the Carrington Event, and it led to extremely intense magnetic fields in the interplanetary medium. For all intents and purposes, that was a Carrington Event that just missed us. We dodged the proverbial bullet there. Now we know there have been others like this.”
Can it happen again? “Some people say that the Carrington Event is a moldy old event and these things happen only once in 1,000 years,” Baker said. “I think recent work has suggested quite the contrary. The probability of any of these occurring during one 11-year cycle of solar storms is like 10 percent, a pretty significant probability. It’s not a rare thing.”
Ultimately, whether triggered by a rogue nation’s high-altitude detonation of a small nuclear weapon or set off by a rare but possible extremely strong solar flare, the result will be the same if we continue to do nothing.
A perfect solar storm
Not all experts agree with Baker about the chances of a Carrington Event-type of CME causing the lights to go out. In fact, there has been some recent commentary about the analysis of solar flares that have occurred over the past 50 years.
Solar storms occur in cycles of about 11 years. We are now entering what has been described as a very active part of the 11 year cycle. It is called the solar maximum, and the scientific community believes that it could be quite potent.
Baker described a worst-case scenario:
“When these huge clouds of material move out at such high speeds, a powerful shockwave can form in front of them. The CMEs can also have embedded within them much stronger magnetic fields, and this entire cloud can, in turn, lead to the acceleration of charged particles. It is sort of the perfect solar storm that’s headed directly at Earth. Those currents get coupled into very long power lines on a continental scale, the power grid. That is the one thing that we worry about most from solar storms — the effect these CMEs can have on the power grid.”
There is agreement in the scientific community, however, that we are approaching the peak of this 11-year cycle. What is not a given is whether this cycle is a particularly strong one, or whether it is actually quite weak, which could signal a longer quiet period.
Krupp, who has examined the historical data, believes the latter. “We had a particularly extended and inactive [solar] minimum. That led to the projection that this coming solar maximum would likely be a weak solar maximum, no matter what it did or when it hit. That has turned out to be the case, that this is not one of the great powerful solar maximums, where you’ve got a lot of sunspots and a lot of solar flares,” Krupp said.
“This may be the time the sun goes into hibernation,” Krupp continued. “We know that the sun has gone into hibernation in the past, most notably in the 17th century, during the mini-Ice Age in the Northern Hemisphere. There were no summers for many years in a row. That lasted about 100 years.”
Velli was in agreement with Krupp.
“The projection is that we’re supposed to have the solar maximum in mid-2013, but we may have already peaked. The average sunspot number is lower than the last maximum, which had about 125. We’re projecting at least 25 percent lower. You can still have a large flare,” Velli said.
Which is precisely what happened as Velli was being interviewed. News broke about a large solar flare that occurred on Oct. 22, and that flare was an X-class, the largest class. The flare was measured as X-class 1.8. To put this into perspective, the CME that took down the power grid in Quebec in 1989 was an X-class 15.
“The Carrington Event was probably off the scale,” Velli said.
How will we know if a whopper is heading toward us?
Velli said the orbiting solar satellites will warn us.
“It would be advance warning of a really large class Earth-affecting CME,” he said. “They are called halo corona ejections because they look like a halo coming from the sun because they are coming straight at us and they get bigger and bigger until they occupy the whole sky. If you look at them, they are kind of scary.”
‘Hope is not a strategy’
Baker has been vocal about the lack of preparation for an EMP caused by a solar flare.
“The first thing I think we should not do is be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand, which, in many ways, is what we are doing. Hope is not a strategy. Scientists should really be trying to define for policymakers what would realistically be the worst-case scenario,” Baker said.
Difficult decisions must be made, Baker said. “We need to decide as a society what we regard as critical infrastructure that has to operate, that has to be protected from the most severe solar storm. I don’t think we’ve done that yet,” he said.
The absence of any cohesive policy about whether to harden the grid or simply shut it down in the rare chance of a massive CME coming right at us is not due to a lack of political concern.
Congressional committees have acknowledged the danger since 2001. There have been studies ordered, hearings held, admissions of lack of knowledge and lists of problems. Still, it remains in the talking stages and no action has been taken to lessen the danger. The Department of Homeland Security admitted as recently as this past September that it has no estimate of the costs associated with an EMP. But experts, including Baker, have placed the cost at $1 trillion to $2 trillion. Estimates of the cost of meaningful preparation are $150 million to $200 million.
On Sept. 12, the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Cyber security, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies held a hearing on the electromagnetic pulse threat. Rep. Dan Lungren of California chaired the hearing.
Lundgren, a former California Attorney General, said in his opening statement that an EMP from either a geomagnetic storm or an attack would wipe out the entire country’s electrical grid.
Referring to a 2010 computer simulation conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lundgren said the power system collapse could take four to 10 years from which to fully recover.
“I am fearful that little progress seems to have been made in mitigating the EMP threat,” Lundgren said. “We’ve never conducted an exercise to help us prepare for the severe consequences of a national power outage from an EMP event.”
Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona introduced The Shield Act in 2011 to address these inadequacies, presenting a brief history of the government agency hearings.
“In 2004 and 2008, the EMP Commission testified before the Armed Services Committee that the US society and economy are so critically dependent upon the availability of electricity that a significant collapse of our grid…could result in catastrophic civilian casualties,” Franks said. “This conclusion is echoed by separate reports recently compiled by the DOD (Department of Defense), DHS (Department of Homeland Security), DOE (Department of Energy), NAS (National Academy of Sciences), along with various other agencies and independent researchers.”
On Oct. 18, federal regulators took the first step toward mitigating the effects of an EMP. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said present standards have “a reliability gap” and “do not adequately address vulnerabilities” from a destructive solar storm. FERC called for the agency that oversees the national grid to draft rules requiring power companies to assess their weaknesses and upgrade their grids to withstand the electrical onslaught.
Most power companies in the country are privately owned. As such, those companies have categorized the danger of an EMP as highly unlikely and have refused to officially assess their own vulnerabilities.
In Baker’s opinion, that’s a big mistake.
“What would a Carrington Event look like in modern times? We need to be constantly vigilant, we need to keep our eye on our beautiful but dangerous partner here, the sun,” Baker said. “Knowing what’s coming at us is going to be very advantageous.”