Solar storm delivers a glancing blow to Earth – and a warning
The solar storm caused by a massive eruption two days ago arrived at Earth Wednesday, but it was only a taste of what scientists say might come – and the world is not prepared.
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"We're certainly getting better at it," says Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University, which developed the NOAA computer-modeling system. "A big solar event is kind of like a hurricane in the mid-Atlantic – it's hard to see whether it's going to hit Florida or not.”Skip to next paragraph
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“We see this coronal mass ejection leave the sun, but then it's very hard to track, because we can't see it,” he adds. “We can see it near the sun, but thereafter we are projecting with computer models."
For its part, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is urging Congress to include in legislation intended to secure the grid from cyberattack parallel authority to protect it from severe solar geomagnetic storms.
"In my view, any legislation on national security threats to reliability [of the power grid] should address not only cybersecurity threats but also natural events, i.e., a [solar] geomagnetic disturbance,” Joseph McClelland, director of the FERC's office of electric reliability, testified to a Senate committee in May.
Hardening the grid against natural solar events would require about 5,000 devices that are, in layman's terms, not unlike surge protectors that block geomagnetic induced current, says John Kappenman, an author of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory study. He puts the price tag at about $1 billion.
"The good news is that there's a solution here," he says.
In his research, Kappenman dug into historical records to examine how previous monster solar storms affected society. Another geomagnetic solar storm occurred in 1921, nearly as strong as the Carrington event.
More recently, a 1989 solar storm – also a coronal mass ejection – knocked out power to millions of people in Quebec for about nine hours. Farther south, a large transformer at the Salem Nuclear Power plant in New Jersey was destroyed by the same event.
"These are, thankfully, low-probability events," Mr. Kappenman says. "But sooner or later they will occur and we can't afford to learn the hard way like do with other natural disasters. We have no ability to just resolve to do a better job on the next one.”
His report suggested that rebuilding from a storm like the Carrington event could take four to 10 years today.
“That's the fundamental difference between this threat scenario and the way we tend to learn from other disasters,” he adds. “This time we need to learn before it happens."