October 31, 2010
NASA Solar Shield Predicts Dangerous Current Flows

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) from the Sun can cause magnetic field fluctuations that induce destructive current flows in electric power transformers. A large CME can potentially cause very large scale and long lasting electric grid failures. NASA has a computer software project to try to predict dangerous current flows so that utilities can take steps to protect their equipment.

Every hundred years or so, a solar storm comes along so potent it fills the skies of Earth with blood-red auroras, makes compass needles point in the wrong direction, and sends electric currents coursing through the planet's topsoil. The most famous such storm, the Carrington Event of 1859, actually shocked telegraph operators and set some of their offices on fire. A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences warns that if such a storm occurred today, we could experience widespread power blackouts with permanent damage to many key transformers. What's a utility operator to do?

How bad would be a repeat of the Carrington Event? See my post: Solar Carrington Event Repeat Today Would Collapse Civilization. Therefore this is a worthwhile project.

Think of it as a magnetic vibration forecasting system.

A new NASA project called "Solar Shield" could help keep the lights on.

"Solar Shield is a new and experimental forecasting system for the North American power grid," explains project leader Antti Pulkkinen, a Catholic University of America research associate working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We believe we can zero in on specific transformers and predict which of them are going to be hit hardest by a space weather event."

The troublemaker for power grids is the "GIC" short for geomagnetically induced current. When a coronal mass ejection (a billion-ton solar storm cloud) hits Earth's magnetic field, the impact causes the field to shake and quiver. These magnetic vibrations induce currents almost everywhere, from Earth's upper atmosphere to the ground beneath our feet. Powerful GICs can overload circuits, trip breakers, and in extreme cases melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers.

As compared to most of the other things that NASA does this strikes me as more important. We know from the 1859 event that the Sun can throw up solar storms big enough to disrupt our electric power supplies. Since we are so heavily dependent on electric power we ought to have better ways to predict and ameliorate the effects of extreme solar events.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 October 31 10:18 AM  Dangers Natural General

Fat Man said at October 31, 2010 6:49 PM:

"As compared to most of the other things that NASA does this strikes me as more important."

Are you kidding? The President has tasked them with something infinitely more important, making Muslims feel good about themselves.

Constitution First said at November 1, 2010 10:14 AM:

Civilization is a blind man walking a tight-rope.

The only reason he's as steady as he is, he can't see how far he has to fall.

Bob Miller said at November 1, 2010 11:07 AM:

So when a Carrington Event looms, do we convert suddenly to non-electric power and other devices, or what?

Brian said at November 1, 2010 11:21 AM:

Idea! If American society is permitted to revert to Medieval times due to a foreseeable event, maybe *that* will make Muslims feel good about themselves!

Steve said at November 1, 2010 11:33 AM:

Bob - we might have to go back to steam-powered blogs. Even slower than dial-up.

More seriously, the prudent precautions would be a bit like unplugging the TV when a thunderstorm hits, except on a much larger scale. It is safe to plug in again after the storm passes.

Critical facilities, such as hospitals, water treatment plants, cell phone towers, data centers, often have local back-up power generation. Your house and mine would go dark. Cell phone networks might be ok. Land lines could be in trouble.

theBuckWheat said at November 1, 2010 11:35 AM:

I am sure the ever-so-smart people who are advocating new grid for "Smart Power" already have plans to protect the power system from this type of event as well as from EMP. These people are so smart, they think of everything.

A. Reasoner said at November 1, 2010 1:27 PM:

BuckWheat: Boy are those people smart that think of everything! They're the same ones who gave us Social Security Trust Fund! Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac! TSA! FEMA and the Hurricane Katrina response! BP and the Coast Guard's handling of the Gulf oil spill! The Russian "ReSet" button! Obama's Nobel Peace Prize! The Kyoto Protocol!

[This is too much fun: I could go on-and-on!]

Cash-for-Clunkers! TARP! The "Stimulus" for Big Government! The GM & Chrysler bailouts! Medicare's unfunded liabilities! The 66,000-page U.S. Tax Code! Obama's un-audited Presidential campaign funding! Treasury Dept. printing money as a fiat currency!

ObamaCare! OMG, the biggest, baddest clusterfark evah!

If government was a business, they'd be shut down for malfeasance, egregious misappropriation of shareholder value, corruption of the greatest magnitude, and insider trading. And the perp walks would be antecedent to tar-and-fathers.

Yes, our Elite Smarty-Pants masters also brought you such great corporate hits as: Enron! (Remember Enron?! Those were the good old days, weren't they!) The Savings & Loan fiasco! The corn-farmer / Ethanol cartel! Salmonella eggs!

All of these examples argue militantly for de-centralization of power and encouraging real free-market competition, rather than crony-corporatism and the accumulation of power in ever-fewer hands.

DonM said at November 1, 2010 1:34 PM:

Some of us have security devices not powered by electricity. At least we know they will work.

Also, electrical systems that are shorted out until use should be relatively functional after the event. That is one of the reasons for the "Smart Power" initiative. If you like that may be like a program to have the drunk lay down before he falls down.

Phillep Harding said at November 1, 2010 2:39 PM:

I don't know how useful it would be, but:


dennymack said at November 1, 2010 3:39 PM:

Some questions for the Futurepundit (or the cloud):
What sort of lead time would the "solar shield" give us? Five minutes may allow a few pre-trained utility operators to throw some scissor switches, but it would do nothing for all of our desktop computers and other appliances we rely upon.
How would they get word to the public?
Would unplugging a PC save it, or are the micro-processors inside so sensitive that a Carrington-like event would still fry them?
Do they think the currents would be strong enough to disable cars, or is that just sci-fi?
How totally screwed would out financial system be? I can imagine anything from temporary chaos whilst backup copies are loaded to "If your life savings was stored as an electronic record of digital dollars, we are sorry to inform you..."

This seems like the perfect storm for our society. (sorry) The threat itself doesn't sound deadly, no one has ever experienced it as a catastrophe, and the infrastructure that it threatens is the stuff we never see, and therefore we never see how thoroughly we rely on it.

michael anderson said at November 1, 2010 6:51 PM:

Is there any evidence that the power companies are taking this threat seriously?

Randall Parker said at November 1, 2010 7:52 PM:

Bob Miller,

The effects of the CME are pretty short-lived. The idea here is to bring down the most sensitive parts of the grid for a day or two and then bring it back up again. The most important parts to save are massive transformers that are very expensive and which have a lead time of a year or more to make. If a large number of them were lost in something like a Carrington Event then the time to make replacements would be even larger due to the need to scale up production.

There's not much we can convert to while power is down. If the outage was just 2-3 days then you'd do what people have done when big grid outages occur.


Regards lead time: Less than 30 minutes according to the bottom of the NASA press release.

One thing it depends on which satellites are working. A serious vulnerability we have is old satellites for watching the Sun. We ought to have newer satellites with more redundant coverage. We could also position satellites closer to the Sun. All this costs money. I'd rather spend on this than on the ISS or other human space flight activities.

We could also prepare for a big CME some other ways (that also cost money):

- Build more back-up big (and expensive) transformers.
- Enhance the grid to make it more able to protect itself from power surges.
- Build up the capacity to manufacture transformers rapidly.

Note that it is the big transformers that are the Achilles Heel. The little gadgets we all have near us are at much less risk.

Jaye said at November 1, 2010 8:59 PM:

So what happens to those of us with implanted defibrillator/pacemakers in such a storm?

Brett Bellmore said at November 2, 2010 3:22 PM:

"So what happens to those of us with implanted defibrillator/pacemakers in such a storm?"

Nothing. The induced currents don't reach dangerous magnitude unless you have a rather long length of conductor to accumulate them. Like a few hundred miles of power line. Battery powered devices not plugged into chargers should be completely immune.

This is at the opposite end of the frequency spectrum from nuclear EMP. It's very long wave.

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