RIMS 2010: Solar Flare Can Cause Earth-Bound Disruptions

by Dave Pelland

BOSTON – As if it weren’t challenging enough trying to manage risks caused by the Earth’s weather patterns, scientific research is increasingly pointing to the potential for large infrastructure disruptions stemming from solar and electromagnetic storms. 

As the U.S. electrical grid makes greater use of extra high-voltage transformers, the resulting interdependency of different utility systems creates, in effect, a large antenna that’s more vulnerable to electromagnetic disruptions from solar flares, according to John Kappenman, principal of Storm Analysis Consultants

Speaking at the 2010 RIMS Conference & Exhibition, Kappenman described a major electromagnetic storm as a low-frequency but high-impact event that the electrical grid hasn’t been designed to withstand.

“We’ve been building the power grids larger and larger, with higher operating voltages that connect to each other extraordinarily well, but also couple extraordinarily well to the earth’s geomagnetic fields during storms.”

Sten Odenwald, an astronomer affiliated with NASA and Catholic University, said that while researchers have made considerable progress in understanding the sun, they haven’t yet developed the ability to predict the occurence of solar flares. 

“We expect the sun to behave in certain ways, but it can behave in a more-intense way that we haven’t seen yet,” Odenwald said. “Space weather is very hard to predict, because a flare does not automatically [lead to] an increase in radiation.”

Unlike hurricanes, which generally strike within a relatively small region, the effects of an electromagnetic storm can be continent-wide and arrive with very little warning. 

A flare caused by a large solar storm, for instance, can reach the earth’s electromagnetic field within eight minutes. 

Routine solar storms can degrade the performance and lifespan of satellites by, for example, damaging memory circuits or the solar panels that recharge the satellite’s batteries. 

The effects of those storms can range from momentary disruptions to the accuracy of GPS devices to more severe consequences.

A solar storm that disrupts radio communications over the north pole, for example, could prevent air travel though the region and lead to disruptions similar to those caused by the Icelandic volcano ash earlier this month. 

Similarly, large-scale disruptions to underseas communications cables could affect financial and currency trading. 

Solar flares have disrupted electrical grids and communications before. In 1989, for instance, a large geomagnetic storm damaged Quebec’s power grid and left six million people without power for more than nine hours. Less severe storms have disrupted shortwave and maritime radio communications in 1930 and 1978.

Kappenman said the large transformers that increasingly serve high-voltage power grids are expensive and time-consuming to manufacture, which means replacing a large number of them after an electromagnetic storm could be difficult. 

In response to the risk, Kappenman said electrical utilities are starting to cooperate with federal regulators and the U.S. Congress on design and code requirements for transformers and other parts of the electrical grid. Such efforts remains in early stages.

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