Solar storms are back, threatening power grids and satellites

(Bloomberg) – A few days ago, millions of tons of superheated gas erupted from the surface of the sun and hurtled 90 million kilometers towards Earth.The eruption, called coronal mass ejection, was not particularly powerful on the scale of space weather, but when it struck Earth’s magnetic field, it set off the strongest geomagnetic storm seen in years. There wasn’t much disruption this time around – few people probably even knew it had happened – but it was a reminder that the sun woke up after years of sleep.

While invisible and harmless to anyone on the Earth’s surface, geomagnetic waves unleashed by solar storms can cripple power grids, jam radio communications, bathe airline crews in dangerous levels of radiation, and knock people out critical satellites. The sun entered a new 11-year cycle last year and as it reached its peak in 2025, the specter of powerful space weather wreaking havoc on humans is growing, threatening chaos in a world that is become more and more dependent on technology since the last big storms. 17 years ago. A recent study suggested that grid strengthening could bring benefits worth $ 27 billion to the US power industry.

“It is always remarkable to me the number of people, companies, who think that space weather is a Hollywood fiction,” said Caitlin Durkovich, Special Assistant to US President Joe Biden and Senior Director of Resilience and Response to the National Security Council, during a talk at a solar weather conference last month.

The danger is not hypothetical. In 2017, a solar storm turned ham radios to static electricity as Category 5 Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean. In 2015, solar storms destroyed global positioning systems in the northeastern United States, of particular concern as self-driving cars become a reality. Airline pilots are at greater risk of developing cataracts when solar storms strike. The female crew sees higher rates of miscarriages.

In March 1989, a solar storm over Quebec caused a province-wide blackout that lasted nine hours, according to the Hydro-Quebec website. A 2017 article published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union predicted that power outages caused by severe space weather could hit up to 66% of the American population, with economic losses reaching a potential of 41, $ 5 billion a day.

To avert such a catastrophe, President Barack Obama’s administration has devised a strategy to begin raising awareness of the dangers of massive solar storms and assessing the risks they present. Last year, President Donald Trump enacted the ProSwift Bill, which aims to develop technology to improve the prediction and measurement of space weather events.

There is a debate among scientists about what can be done to protect vulnerable parts of the planet’s infrastructure from the effects of solar storms. Measures such as using non-magnetic steel in transformers and installing more surge protectors in the grid might boost resilience, but ultimately the best defense against disasters might be a better forecast.

This would go a long way in helping utilities prepare for shortages and ensure that there are ways to safeguard their systems in the event that they lose power. In a few weeks, a new model developed by the University of Michigan will go live to help improve Earth-related forecasts. In the UK, National Grid is strengthening its supply of aftermarket transformers and conducting regular drills to do so. facing a major space weather event, said Mark Prouse, deputy director of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a government department.

Over the past 15 years, the US and UK have built space weather forecasting centers that provide daily perspectives on what might be coming from the sun for airlines, power grids, satellite owners and anyone else threatened by solar flares. While Earth-bound observers can see explosive storms erupt on the sun, they cannot tell the true nature of the threat – exactly how powerful it is – until the explosion hits a set of 1 million satellites. of kilometers from the planet. At this point, there are only 60 to 90 minutes left before it hits Earth. “Our ability to understand and predict the solar cycle is still very limited,” said William Murtagh, director of the US Space Weather Prediction Center.

Just as utilities can prepare for a severe thunderstorm by installing repairers nearby, similar precautions could be taken before a solar storm, according to Mark Olson, the reliability assessment manager of North America Electric Reliability Corp. , a nonprofit organization responsible for the US and Canadian governments.

“You have the potential for really large areas to have tension instability,” Olson said. “Situational awareness is key here, just like in terrestrial weather events.”

Solar storms have their roots in an 11-year cycle that changes the polarity of the Sun’s magnetic field. Magnetic forces at work on the sun become entangled during the process and can penetrate through the surface, sending the sun’s plasma into outer space and potentially triggering storms on Earth.The most powerful geomagnetic storm never recorded culminated in the Carrington event of 1859, when telegraph lines electrified, operators zapped, and offices burned down in North America and Europe. If a storm of this magnitude were to strike today, it would likely cut off electricity to millions, if not billions of people. “When I started on this route and was briefed on space weather, I raised an eyebrow,” Prouse said. “It’s much more common and some of the hoax has gone. Now you can take it as a risk and not be laughed at. ”

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