March 01, 2012
Odds Of Solar Flare Electric Grid Disruption
Yet another scientist - this time Peter Riley at Predictive Science - has said the danger of large scale disruption (melted power grids) of civilization from a large coronal mass ejection is high enough that we ought to do more to protect ourselves.
The Earth has a roughly 12 percent chance of experiencing an enormous megaflare erupting from the sun in the next decade. This event could potentially cause trillions of dollars’ worth of damage and take up to a decade to recover from.
Not clear why the risks could be that high. But even if the odds are an order of magnitude lower the cost of protection is so low why not do it? We could buy a substantial amount of risk reduction for under $1 billion. We could affordably reduce our risks from a solar-caused electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). So we should. By contrast, as Jerry Emanuelson has pointed out, protecting against a nuclear EMP is much harder. We should probably go for partial protection against nuclear EMP, just enough to keep society functioning at a level high enough to enable rebuilding.
It is only a matter of time until something like the 1859 Carrington event happens again. If it happened today the impact would be far greater because we've become so heavily dependent on electric power.
Also see my previous posts Solar Carrington Event Repeat Today Would Collapse Civilization and NASA Solar Shield Predicts Dangerous Current Flows.
Sell Faraday cages that enclose, say, a garage and a closet.
Then you'd be able to protect your car and electronics at home.
Sounds like a business opportunity.
Just think. A portion of the $850M Stimulus could have gone to insulate the grid instead of buying all those useless every tenth of a mile highway markers.
Sensible preparation at a societal level would be this:
Stockpile a reasonable number of spares for the extremely high voltage transformers (100KV and above) that are used to step up the voltage from the source power plants, which usually make power in the 10-20KV range, up to a suitable voltage for transportation. This is an incredibly brittle portion of our infrastructure, few to no spares and long lead times to get more.
Rebuild the US strategic grains reserve that we had during the Cold War. Distribute it out at various centers so that it would be practical to employ it in actual SHTF emergencies.
Do these two things and most nightmare scenarios like EMP, Carrington Events, and the like are reduced considerably. Even the impact of most fictional apocalyptic literature would be reduced by at least half. Of course this sort of thing will never be done by our present political class, and the perception of such is likely a large part of why the whole prepping/survivalist scene has had a major resurgence.
Yes, it's a good idea. In fact, on a personal level, I stash my retired computers (laptop and desktop) until I retire the next, and have some other preps. However, on a government level, this is not going to happen, so long as politicians are humans. Just think of all the drugs and hookers the politicians and their supporters could buy with that money!
A faraday cage is easy enough to make, so long as you remember that no conducter connected to the shielding can project inwards or the cage will "spring a leak". This means you put the metal on the inside of a wood frame and point the nails out. It also means that nothing that conducts can touch the inside of the shielding. Remember this if you decide to use an ammo can - line the can with something that does not conduct.
A faraday cage does NOT need to be grounded (think "dipole antenna" - no ground needed).
As long as we're paying attention, it shouldn't really be possible to be caught completely off guard. Usually we would have at least days of warning and even if a huge CME forms pointed right at us we should have hours of warning, so the best thing to do is probably make a plan on what to do when a huge CME is dectected and actually run drills now and then to make sure it works. This plan could include grounding aircraft to minimize radiation exposure for a really big one. We could probably skip most of the actual physical hardening of systems.
NASA has been working on this: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2008/solar_shield.html
If a huge GIC (geomagnetic induced current) event is coming, why not just have a planned blackout and open up most of the switchgear at the major substations to protect it for the 24 hours or so that the event will occur. This would be a cheap way to handle this without blowing up our transformer equipment beyond repair.
I'd second Jehu and note that food reserves are another relatively low-cost item that the government should really look at. Besides things like the Carrington Event, there's probably about a 1% annual chance of really massive worldwide crop failure due to volcanic event or meteor. We've had a pretty quiet century or more, but statistically such insurance still makes sense. Granted, the USA would be in much better position than almost anywhere else if worldwide food production plummeted (just because our baseline is so massive compared to our actual needs).
@Jerry: I don't know how good we are at predicting the magnitude of the GIC events prior to impact. Could be a case where people would be reluctant to turn off the grid because it might be a false alarm.
It's hard to have food reserves when ethanol mandates have been legislated to consume it as fast as it can be grown. There's a little conflict of priorities there, and immediate profits always seem to beat sensible measures against contingencies.
If it makes people feel better, rich countries are very well insulated against all but the most extreme of crop failures. If the price of grain doubled the richest billion people in the world would hardly notice. But for the poorest billion, well, for most their situation would be dire.
Food demand is inelastic enough that severe shortages could cause the price to rise six or sevenfold. Mere doubling of the price of something like wheat (from the average) is part of the normal range of commodity price fluctuations.
But the mandatory use of ethanol continues.