A tech-destroying solar flare could hit Earth within 100 years

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By Leah Crane

The sun could be one of our biggest threats in the next 100 years. If an enormous solar flare like the one that hit Earth 150 years ago struck us today, it could knock out our electrical grids, satellite communications and the internet. A new study finds that such an event is likely within the next century.

“The sun is usually thought of as a friend and the source of life, but it could also be the opposite,” says Avi Loeb at Harvard University. “It just depends on circumstances.”

Loeb and Manasvi Lingam, also at Harvard, examined data on other sun-like stars to see how likely solar “superflares” are and how they might affect us.

They found that the most extreme superflares are likely to occur on a star like our sun about every 20 million years. The worst of these energetic bursts of ultraviolet radiation and high-energy charged particles could destroy our ozone layer, cause DNA mutations and disrupt ecosystems.

But in the shorter term, the researchers say that less intense superflares of a type we know can happen on our sun could still cause problems. In 1859, a powerful solar storm sent enormous flares towards Earth in the first recorded event of its kind. Telegraph systems across the Western world failed, with some reports of operators receiving shocks from the huge amounts of electrical current forced through the wires.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Data cables are now glass and immune, but powerlines are very vulnerable.

    Plans for the North American Supergrid may improve the immunity of long cable runs very substantially by employing coaxial cables that have, in effect, coincident send and return current paths. These are then to be buried 1.2m below ground in an environment of controlled material and hydrology. Induced voltages and currents are dramatically reduced by these means as a useful byproduct of a more efficient long distance circuit.

    Giant solar flares are being actively catered for along with nuclear EMP resistance.

    New super rapid disconnect systems (a power station’s worth in 5 milliseconds) can protect infrastructure much more comprehensively than before and distributed generation and storage creates much fault tolerance.

    All these added virtues fall out from properly catering for renewables. China, well ahead of the curve recently upped their spend on grid infrastructure by 40%.

  2. Before I comment, a quick note to say that if there is anyone out there with a better understanding, I’m sure many visitors to this site would welcome more information. Now I will expose my endless ignorance …

    I am disturbed that a publication called New Scientist should present such a poorly researched and alarmist article.

    I took me ages – many long, long, seconds in fact – to discover that geomagnetic storms have also hit in 1989 and 2003 – not only in 1859. Although it is probably true to say that power companies have not done as much as they could, some measures of protection have been put in place as a direct result of this experience.

    In addition, when I served in the armed forces in the ‘80s it was standard to specify equipment with Electro-Magnetic Pulse protection (EMP) which, as Phil points out, should protect that equipment from the effects of a geomagnetic storm. Do we think that EMP protection might have improved, and that in the intervening 40 years much of that kit will have been replaced by improved technology.

    I also happen to have moved, later in my career, into civil communications where the buying power of the Cold War military had made EMP protection standard too. As I understand the science, mobile communications remain more vulnerable, New Scientist fails to enlighten.

    Phil mentions fibre optics, and he could have mentioned the increased use of coaxial cables and other shielded conductors. However, unshielded twisted pairs still make up the bulk of comms. infrastructure so most homes and small businesses have broadband and telephony that is vulnerable.

    Most commercial-grade ICT infrastructure is housed, in addition, in equipment racks and in rooms that are faraday cages by design in order to cut down on damaging crosstalk and to prevent the radiation of signals that could be picked up outside. Although not designed to protect against solar generated geomagnetic storms, they provide that for free.

    Although there is an increasing trend towards ‘burying’ power transformers in lower basements, particularly in cities – with EM shields to stop the transformers radiating interference – they are not in faraday cages and some remain vulnerable.

    Not explored by New Scientist but, it seems to me, far more pertinent, is the problem of conductors in transport infrastructure. Large parts of the civil transport infrastructure run on electricity and, as far as I’m aware, there has been no move to protect it from geomagnetic storms, or EMP?

    It would have also been useful to read about the likely effect a geomagnetic storm will have on batteries.

    In their defence New Scientist’ o point to a rather blasé attitude over the many millions of transformers and other components likely to be burned out by a large geomagnetic storm. No one, as far as I know, is stockpiling replacements in tin-foil lined storage rooms. The damage could be easily fixed (as it was in 1989 and 2003) if there are spares available – but a large storm would severely stretch our ability to manufacture replacements in a timely way. A large storm could turn out some people’s lights for years, rather than months. *New Scientist seems to have run out of energy when it comes to depth of insight.

    That said, I do not fear a large geomagnetic storm. Perhaps that’s because I don’t understand the physics? What a pity New Scientist did not see fit to educate us on this point – are they considering a name change to New Pseudo-Scientist or New Scare-Monger perhaps?

  3. Hi Stephen.

    This stuff is in something of a sweet spot for me. I used to design test equipment for safety circuits on power lines for a few years.

    The “Carrington event” of 1859 has been the largest observed to date and is right to be singled out in this way.

    Twisted pairs are somewhat immune. The send and return paths are very close and the twist means that in a large homogeneous field the effects are exactly cancelled at each half turn. Further the cable runs are generally not more than a few km.

    The most vulnerable lines are 100+km long runs with large separations in send and return paths and cables held well clear of the ground creating common mode faults as well as the former differential faults. The geomagnetic disturbances of other storms are generally less than 100 nanoTeslas (1E-7T), and the 1859 one was possibly approaching 2 microTeslas (2E-6T). This is indeed quite small which is why it takes a lot of cable to induce enough mischief. Other equipment is mostly immune except when operating at certain lowish frequencies when it is temporarily unusable or specific types of cable routing on satellites above the buffering effect of the earths own magnetic field at 45 microTeslas (4.5E-5T).

    This latter figure, though, warns us of a potentially spectacular problem to come when the earth’s own field starts to collapse in what is thought will be a very chaotic way before reasserting itself with north and south reversed.

    I think NS are correct to flag this risk. It is another great argument for grid modernisation. The country loses 8% of its electrical power to grid copper losses and upgrading to HVDC with its lower losses will transform our ability to stabilise renewable and buy and sell surpluses over far wider areas. Besides if we don’t cut corners, but bury the cables we will have traded those ugly pylons for graceful turbines….increasingly offshore.

  4. Hi Phil,

    Thank you for the response.

    Your comment on twisted pairs made me remember that an awful lot of outdoor installations are parallel pairs. Odd that I remembered that for transport only. Of course, as you pointed out in comment #1, any more then three or four pair routes have been replaced with glass, perhaps that was it.

    Eddy magnetic currents in the Earth’s magnetic field? Wouldn’t that be likely to create electric currents in earth potential conductors? Now that does sound nasty.

    I’ve had plenty of experience of protection devices for lightning strikes, earth gapping in HV installations to prevent harmonic noise and potential dangers from high potential differences when faults occur and cross-talk preventative measures from grid transformers to transmitters, secure communications and even the design of micro-chips. That doesn’t seem relevant here. That makes me sound very experienced and knowledgable – experienced yes, knowledgable … not so much. Some of it went in, but there were reasons I went into marketing and management and one is I’m a long way from being a great engineer.

    I haven’t heard anything much about grid modernisation except some rather half-hearted moves to a more comprehensive standard and better integration of micro-generation. I freely admit I’m probably way behind the curve on this one.

    What is HVDC? I do like the idea of retiring all those towers and masts.

    Many countries are too complacent about the power losses in distribution networks, agreed.

    Peace.

  5. High Voltage Direct Current. It can run to much higher voltages than AC reducing current for the same power, thereby reducing losses. With no dielectric losses in insulators and no capacitative leakage currents, coaxial cables become possible in turn allowing high powered sub-marine and sub-terrain cables to become a reality.

    Very large geographical) area magnetic disturbances are dangerous (given the cumulative effect on very long cables) within the loop area of the send and return path (differential disturbance) and between these two conductors and ground (common mode disturbance). Using coaxial cable and burying it in carefully watered ground makes the coaxial cable, coaxial with the earth to a first approximation mitigating both fault types.

    I could bore for England on this.

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