Monday, July 28, 2008

A Solar Superstorm: A potential economic mega-disaster?

Here’s another potential mega-disaster that the History Channel hasn’t covered yet to my knowledge. It don’t think “It Could Happen Tomorrow.”

In 1859 there was a solar storm that led to northern lights as far south as Georgia, and made people think night was day. It seriously disrupted telegraph operations, which composed the email technology of the era. It is supposed to be a once in 500 year event, “they tell us.” But there was a milder one in 1921.

The August 2008 Scientific American, on p 80, runs “Bracing for a Solar Superstorm” by Sten F. Odenwald and James L. Green, link here.

The article discusses the meteorology of the Sun, and explains how larger storms relate to the sunspot cycle, and why really large storms are rarer.

The first part of the articles discusses the potential impact on space operations and satellites, which we depend on more than we think, and which generate billions in revenue for telecommunications companies. But the big effect would be on our electric power grid. The article explains how large solar storms induce reverse currents that fry transformers or at least cause uncontrollable surges. Most of the US Northeast and much of the rest of the country would be knocked out by an 1859 event, and it could take months to repair. Without these, food could not be refrigerated, and companies with businesses predicated on operating computer servers could not operate. This sounds like an economic mega-disaster that sounds unimaginable, even if there were little physical destruction.

The last major Northeast failure occurred in 2003 because of a fallen tree in Canada and a software problem in Ohio. It took two or three days to fix. There was a 24 hour failure in New York City in 1977 when I was living there. Smaller flares may actually cause damage to equipment that expresses as surges or failures in fair weather without explanation.

There was a solar flare in October 2003 that caused minor disruptions. Ironically, on the same day, the broadcast episode of "Smallville" was based on a solar flare affecting the powers of young Clark Kent.

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