BEIRUT, Lebanon – The sun over the weekend unleashed yet another flare that had little impact on Earth – this time – although power grid and transformer companies, airlines and satellite operators were notified.
But solar specialists said that the most intense of these storms isn’t expected until next year.
The weekend’s solar storm erupted on the sun’s surface, but was low enough that the flare emanating from it – a cloud of highly charged particles hurled toward the Earth’s magnetic field at some three million miles an hour – had few impacts.
This latest flare was the sixth just this year.
More severe solar storms are known to affect the Earth’s magnetic field, causing other weather conditions such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and volcanoes.
A solar storm’s impact on the earth’s magnetic field creates what’s called an electromagnetic pulse which – depending on the severity – can cause power blackouts, damage satellites, disrupt global positioning systems, and communications.
Often, airlines are ordered to reroute around the North and South poles as a result of the storms.
More severe solar storms such as the one in 1989 have taken out the power grid in Quebec, leaving some six million people without electricity for days.
This latest storm, which is regarded as an X1.4-class solar flare, is just one in a series that are being closely monitored. Last month’s solar flare was registered as an X1.1-class.
These storms have become more frequent as part of a regular 11-year cycle of the sun. Each storm from here on is expected to grow in intensity until it reaches its most intense sometime next year.
While this storm created little effect on the nation’s electrical infrastructure, it did perform a dazzling display of aurora borealis or northern lights that followed the storm in the northern portion of the United States and southern parts of Canada.
While the display was impressive, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration has warned that unless protective measures are adopted there could be serious problems for the electrical grid and other infrastructures that rely on electricity. Experts forecast it could take up to 10 years to recover such a major event.
Both NASA and the National Academy of Sciences have confirmed to WND/G2Bulletin that the most intense storm in this latest solar cycle could peak next year.
The concern is that the nation is ill-prepared for such an event, given the impact that the pulse from such a maximum solar flare could produce several hundred sunspots occurring on any given day, lasting for up to a month or so.
Sunspots are dark areas on the sun’s surface that contain strong magnetic fields that are constantly shifting. According to NASA, a moderate-sized sunspot is about as large as the Earth and can come and go over a period of days or weeks.
They occur when strong magnetic fields emerge through the solar surface and allow the area to cool slightly, from 6,000 degrees Celsius down to about 4,200 degrees Celsius.
While the explosive heat from a solar flare doesn’t make it to Earth, there is electromagnetic radiation and energetic particles that do.
These electromagnetic fluctuations in turn induce electric fluctuations at ground level that then blow out electrical transformers in power grids. They also collide with crucial electronics onboard a satellite and disrupt those systems.
Not only will such a development impact critical civilian infrastructure, but it could have an adverse effect on U.S. military systems because of their heavy reliance on commercial satellites for worldwide communications, as well as a 99 percent dependency on the civilian grid system.
The effects from even a solar electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, are seen not just as a possibility but an inevitability.
NASA expects what some term a “super storm” to hit like a bolt of lightning, creating catastrophic effects especially to health and emergency services.
Other sources said that such effects also would occur in all forms of telecommunications connected to power sources or antennas, as well as computers, electrical appliances and automobile or aircraft ignition systems. It also could affect those individuals with pacemakers or implanted electronic devices.
“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” acknowledges Dr. Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics division.
In 2008, an international conference held by the National Research Council of the National Academies of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the societal and economic impact of a severe “space weather event.”
The last time there was such an enormous outburst of energy from the sun was in mid October through early November 2003. It triggered severe geomagnetic storms, prompting major system failures of electric transformers.
Referred to as the “Halloween storms,” the 2003 sunburst and its effects underscored their adverse societal and economic impact.
This also was seen during the 1989 super storm in which a large solar magnetic impulse caused a voltage depression on the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada that could not even be avoided with voltage compensation equipment.
The equipment failure resulted in a massive generation loss and it collapsed within seconds. During this same storm, a transformer failed at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey. It was regarded as the most severe of approximately 200 separate events reported during the storm on the North American power system.
NAS experts agree that since the 1989 storm, any future event could be even worse, since larger amounts of energy are being carried across power systems to improve the economic benefits of delivering the lowest cost energy to demand centers.
Just as power transfers have increased since then, the risk also has increased for multiple equipment failures in the event of the next solar storm.
“If several elements were lost at strategic locations (across the nation), a voltage collapse and associated blackout would be possible,” according to the NAS study. At the time of the 2003 storm, NASA astronauts in space were advised to take precautions and seek shelter. The storm caused the loss of the $640 million ADEOS-2 spacecraft. On board was a $150 million NASA Sea Winds instrument.
Airliners on higher latitude routes were advised to avoid high radiation levels and communication blackout areas. The rerouting of aircraft cost up to $100,000 for each flight.
Despite lessons garnered from these previous storms, however, little has happened to make the nation’s critical infrastructure less vulnerable.
The nation’s electric power grids remain vulnerable to disruption and damage by severe space weather and have become even more so in terms of both widespread blackouts and permanent equipment damage requiring long restoration times, the NAS study said.
A storm maximum today could result in large-scale blackouts that experts say not only could cost up to $2 trillion in the first year but could affect more than 130 million people and expose more than 350 transformers to high risk or permanent damage, taking up to a generation to recover.
F. Michael Maloof, staff writer for the WND/ G2Bulletin, is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected]