Solar Flare Radiation Dangers: Are We Ready?

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Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field called the magnetosphere: Image courtesy of NASA

Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, a region around Earth dominated by its magnetic field. Some scientists believe that without this region, Earth would have lost the majority of its water and atmosphere. Solar flares produce highly energetic particles which can affect the Earth’s magnetosphere. The resulting rapidly-changing electric fields and magnetic fields can couple with electrical/electronic systems to produce voltage surges.

Solar Power Surge: Impacts on the Grid

The electric power grid is one of the most important and severely-impacted critical infrastructures in the event of a severe solar flare. Fluctuations in the Earth’s atmosphere from the electromagnetic radiation could induce electric fluctuations at ground level that could blow out transformers in power grids and melt the copper windings of transformers.

Think of the grid as a long road connecting streets from different areas.  The large freeways carry the electricity on supply lines to their destination. When solar flares and other space weather disturbances occur, the additional current, or traffic, sent to freeway terminations, or power substations and transformers, can cause an overload. Modern power grids are so interconnected that a severe solar storm could cause a cascade of failures that would sweep across the United States. Utilities, in recent years, have joined grids for long-distance transmission to lower costs and support increased demand. Changes within the electric power industry and in technology have increased the risk posed by electronic intrusion such as that produced by a big space storm.

Solar Storms and the Grid: What Do We Do About It?

Major failures of the power grid can incur high costs and security risks, not to mention the impact of a lack of available power for the general population. Identification of strategic points on the power grid and appropriate action can enhance defense against natural disasters such as solar flares, other solar weather disturbances, or even an EMP attack.

Preparing for Solar Events

Technology has become pervasive in our environment. The motto of “Be Prepared” is even more important. Reliable forecasting is the key; if utilities, satellite operators, and communication centers knew the potential for danger, then measures could be taken to reduce damage. Potential preventative measures include shielding , powering down, or disconnecting wires in advance of a major storm.

Sources

NASA. Space Weather. Accessed January 4, 2012.

NOAA/Space Weather Prediction Center. SWPC Frequently Asked Questions, Solar Cycle Progression. Accessed January 4, 2012.

The Telegraph. Solar flare threatens to disrupt Earth’s communication and power. (2012). Accessed January 4, 2012.

Pachal, P. Massive Solar Flare Misses Earth, but Are We Ready for the Big One? PC Mag. (2011). Accessed January 4, 2012.

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