Space Weather: A Primer
Best-Selling Author Bobby Akart
Because you never know when the day before — is the day before.
Prepare for tomorrow!
Author Bobby Akart, the founder of Freedom Preppers, has been a tireless proponent of adopting a preparedness lifestyle. As he learned prepping tips and techniques, he shared them with others via his writing on the American Preppers Network website, and in his bestselling book series—The Boston Brahmin and Prepping for Tomorrow.
In The Boston Brahmin series, political suspense collides with post-apocalyptic thriller fiction. Bobby’s attention to detail and real-world scenarios immerses the reader in a world of geopolitical machinations and post-apocalyptic drama. Preparedness skills and techniques are interwoven in the plot in way that the reader can be given a real-world scenario to envision.
The Prepping for Tomorrow series is the culmination of Bobby’s research and real-world experiences provided in a concise guide for new and experienced preppers alike.
The Blackout Series is intended to provide the reader a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans as they face a catastrophic collapse event in the form of a massive coronal mass ejection.
What is Space Weather?
Space weather is primarily driven by solar storm phenomena that include coronal mass ejections (CMEs), solar flares, solar particle events, and solar wind. These phenomena can occur in various regions on the sun’s surface, but only Earth-directed solar storms are the potential drivers of space weather events on Earth. An understanding of solar storm phenomena is an important component to developing accurate space-weather forecasts (event onset, location, duration, and magnitude). CMEs are explosions of plasma (charged particles) from the sun’s corona. They generally take twenty-four to forty-eight hours to arrive at Earth, but in the most extreme cases they have been observed to arrive in as little as fifteen hours. When CMEs collide with Earth’s magnetic field, they can cause a space weather event called a geomagnetic storm, which often includes enhanced aurora displays. Geomagnetic storms of varying magnitudes can cause significant long- and short-term impacts to the Nation’s critical infrastructure, including the electric power grid, aviation systems, Global Positioning System (GPS) applications, and satellites.
A solar flare is a brief eruption of intense high-energy electromagnetic radiation from the sun’s surface, typically associated with sunspots. Solar flares can affect Earth’s upper atmosphere, potentially causing disruption, degradation, or blackout of satellite communications, radar, and high-frequency radio communications. The electromagnetic radiation from the flare takes approximately eight minutes to reach Earth, and the effects usually last for one to three hours on the daylight side of Earth.
Solar particle events are bursts of energetic electrons, protons, alpha particles, and other heavier particles into interplanetary space. Following an event on the sun, the fastest moving particles can reach Earth within tens of minutes and temporarily enhance the radiation level in interplanetary and near-Earth space. When energetic protons collide with satellites or humans in space, they can penetrate deep into the object that they collide with and cause damage to electronic circuits or biological DNA. Solar particle events can also pose a risk to passengers and crew in aircraft at high latitudes near the geomagnetic poles and can make radio communications difficult or nearly impossible.
Solar wind, consisting of plasma, continuously flows from the sun. Different regions of the sun produce winds of different speeds and densities. Solar wind speed and density play an important role in space weather. High-speed winds tend to produce geomagnetic disturbances, and slow-speed winds can bring calm space weather. Space weather effects on Earth are highly
dependent on solar wind speed, solar wind density, and direction of the magnetic field embedded in the solar wind. When high-speed solar wind overtakes slow-speed wind or when the magnetic field of solar wind switches polarity, geomagnetic disturbances can result.
The Deadly Threat of a Coronal Mass Ejection – Solar Flare
A powerful electromagnetic pulse, whether resulting from a nuclear-delivered EMP or a massive solar storm, could collapse the power grid and the critical infrastructure of our nation.
Is the threat real? Renowned American astronomer, Phil Plait, who is a self-proclaimed skeptic, is known as The Bad Astronomer because of his work in debunking common misunderstandings about space events. “People sometimes ask me if anything in astronomy worries me,” says Plait, when asked about the threat of a deadly CME. “Something like this is near the top of the list.”
There is good reason to be concerned. A National Academy of Sciences study found there is a twelve percent chance that a monster solar storm will strike Earth within the next decade. A solar event of that import could cause two trillion dollars’ worth of damage in the first year of recovery alone—twenty times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.
But, what about the human cost? Studies frequently cite economic loss. How would the destruction of the power grid and other critical infrastructure; like the internet, banking, and government be affected? Has such a storm ever hit Earth?
Yes, several times. Imagine our way of life without power for weeks on end, as a result of a massive solar flare striking the Earth. It happened in 1859, in what is commonly referred to as the Carrington Event.
On Sept. 1, 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a brilliant solar flare over England. In the days that followed, a succession of coronal mass ejections struck Earth head-on. Auroras illuminated the night sky from Africa to Hawaii.
“The light appeared to cover the whole firmament,” one Baltimore newspaper reported. “It had an indescribable softness and delicacy.” The effects were more than aesthetic. EMPs from the storm caused telegraph systems — known as the Victorian internet — to fail throughout North America and Europe; in some cases, lines sparked and offices caught fire. Otherwise, the damage was minimal.
Nonetheless, for telegraph operators in the Americas and Europe, the experience caused chaos. Many found that their lines were just unusable—they could neither send nor receive messages. Others were able to operate even with their power supplies turned off, using only the current in the air from the solar storm.
From historical reports, one telegraph operator said, “The line was in perfect order, and skilled operators worked incessantly from eight o’clock last evening until one o’clock this morning to transmit, in an intelligible form, four hundred words of the report per steamer Indian for the Associated Press.”
Other operators experienced physical danger. Washington, D.C. operator, Frank Royce said, “I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the sounder.”
At the time, the telegraph was a new technology and never experienced technical difficulties of this type. But the story offers an important warning for modern society. The Carrington Event provides evidence of the fragility of electrical infrastructure. Scientific American reported in October of 1859: “The electromagnetic basis of the various phenomena was identified relatively quickly. A connection between the northern lights and forces of electricity and magnetism is now fully established.”
This event was long before humanity became utterly reliant on electronics — as it was when history repeated itself 153 years later.
In 1989, a far smaller solar flare sent a pulse of radiation that left six million people in Quebec without power for up to nine hours. Much more alarming, was a solar super storm that barely missed Earth in July 2012. Astronomers say the sun spewed out a huge magnetic cloud that tracked straight through our planet’s orbit. Fortunately, for civilization, the Earth was elsewhere in its path around the sun at the time but had the storm roared through nine days earlier, a worst-case scenario would have occurred. Satellites involved in crucial global communications (including GPS) would have been ruined, large electrical transformers would have been destroyed, and ATMs would have stopped functioning. The internet would have been disabled on a massive scale. Most people wouldn’t have been able to flush toilets, which rely on electric pumps.
Three years later, “we would still be picking up the pieces,” says astronomer Daniel Baker. “The July 2012 storm was, in all respects, at least as strong as the Carrington Event. The only difference is, it missed.”
In a word—TEOTWAWKI—The End Of The World As We Know It.
Over the last one hundred and fifty years, the world’s critical infrastructure has become a more integral part of daily life. In the nineteenth century, telegraphs composed a comparatively small and relatively non-essential part of everyday life. Their successors today—including the electrical grid and much of the telecommunications network—are essential to modern life.
Is the current system any more protected from catastrophic interference than the telegraph of the nineteenth century? Can the power grid handle a terrorist attack, or severe weather events, or a solar storm?
There has never been a real test to prove it, but there is a robust debate about the vulnerability of the power grid. The most dangerous and costly possibilities for major catastrophes, the collapse of the nation’s critical infrastructure, might visit the United States from any number of methods.
One scenario is a repeat of the solar storm as big as the 1859 Carrington Event. A solar event of this significance hasn’t struck the earth since, although there have been smaller ones. As a result of the Quebec blackout in 1989, there were complications across the interconnected grid and a large transformer in New Jersey permanently failed.
In 2003, residents of the northeastern United States experienced a grid-down scenario. It doesn’t take an unprecedented solar flare to knock out power. The combination of a few trees touching power lines, and a few power companies asleep at the wheel,
plunged a section of the nation into darkness. The darkness can spread. As the difficulties at Ohio-based FirstEnergy grew and eventually cascaded over the grid, electrical service from Detroit to New York City was lost. The 2003 event was a comparatively minor episode, compared to what might have happened. Most customers had their power back within a couple of days and the transformers were relatively unaffected.
Compare that event with the incident in Auckland, New Zealand. Cables supplying power to the downtown business district failed in 1998. The center of the city went dark. Companies were forced to shutter or relocate their operations outside of the affected area. The local Auckland utility had to adopt drastic measures to move in temporary generators. They even enlisted the assistance of the world’s largest cargo plane—owned by rock band U2, to transport massive generators into the area. It took five weeks for the power grid to be fully restored.
There are contrarians. Jeff Dagle, an electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who served on the Northeast Blackout Investigation Task Force argued, “one lesson of the 2003 blackout is that the power grid is more resilient than you might think.”
The task force investigators pinpointed four separate root causes for the collapse, and human error played a significant role. “It took an hour for it to collapse with no one managing it,” Dagle said. “They would have been just as effective if they had just gone home for the day. That to me just underscores how remarkably stable things are.”
As awareness was raised by Congress, the National Academies of Science produced a report detailing the risk of a significant solar event. The 2008 NAS report paints a dire picture, based on a study conducted for FEMA and Electromagnetic Pulse Commission created by Congress.
While severe solar storms do not occur that often, they have the potential for long-term catastrophic impacts to the nation’s power grid. Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures. For example, the potable water distribution will be affected immediately. Pumps and purification facilities rely on electricity. The nation’s food supply will be disrupted, and most perishable foods will spoil and be lost within twenty-four hours. There will be immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply, and many of the necessities that we take for granted.
According to the EMP Commission, the effects would be felt for years, and its economic costs could add up to trillions of dollars—dwarfing the cost of Hurricane Katrina. More importantly, the commission’s findings stated a potential loss of life that was staggering. Within one year, according to their conclusions, ninety percent of Americans would die.
But some skeptics say it’s the opposite. Jon Wellinghoff, who served as Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—commonly known as FERC, from 2009 to 2013, has sounded the alarm about the danger of an attack on the system. The heightened awareness came as a result of an April 2013 incident in Silicon Valley, California, in which a group of attackers conducted a coordinated assault on an electrical substation, knocking out twenty-seven transformers. FERC points to the fact that the U.S. power grid is broken into three big sections known as interconnections. There is one each for the Eastern United States, the Western United States, and—out on its own—Texas. In fact, the East and West interconnections also include much of Canada and parts of Mexico.
In a 2013 report, FERC concluded that if a limited number of substations in each of those interconnections were disabled, utilities would not be able to bring the interconnections back up again for an indeterminate amount of time. FERC’s conclusion isn’t classified information. This information has been in government reports and widely disseminated on the internet for years.
FERC also noted that it could take far longer to return the electrical grid to full functionality than it did in 2003. Wellinghoff said, “If you destroy the transformers—all it takes is one high-caliber bullet through a transformer case, and it’s gone, you have to replace it. If there aren’t spares on hand—and in the event of a coordinated attack on multiple substations, any inventory could be exhausted—it takes months to build new ones.”
“Once your electricity is out, your gasoline is out, because you can’t pump the gas anymore. All your transportations out, all of your financial transactions are out, of course because there are no electronics,” Wellinghoff also stated.
FERC’s proposed solution was to break the system into a series of microgrids. In the event of a cascading failure, smaller portions of the country could isolate themselves from the collapse of the grid. There is a precedent for this. Princeton University has an independent power grid. When a large part of the critical infrastructure collapsed during Superstorm Sandy, the Princeton campus became a place of refuge for residents and a command center for first responders.
These doomsday scenarios may be beside the point because the electrical grid is already subject to a series of dangerous stresses from natural disasters. Sandy showed that the assumptions used to build many parts of the electrical infrastructure were wrong. The storm surge overwhelmed the substations, causing them to flood, and subsequently fail. Experts determined that significant portions of the grid might need to be moved to higher ground.
Even away from the coasts, extreme weather can threaten the system in unexpected ways. Some systems use gas insulation, but if the temperature drops low enough, the gas composition changes and the insulation fails. Power plants in warmer places like Texas aren’t well-prepared for extreme cold, meaning power-generating plants could fail when the population needs them the most to provide power for heat. As utilities rely more heavily on natural gas to generate power, there’s a danger of demand exceeding supply. A likely scenario is a blizzard, in which everyone cranks up their propane or natural gas-powered heating systems. As the system becomes overwhelmed, the gas company can’t provide to everyone. Power providers don’t necessarily have the first right of refusal from their sources, so they could lose their supply and be forced to power down in the middle of a winter storm.
Summer doesn’t necessarily offer any respite. Even prolonged droughts can play a role. As consumers turn up their air conditioners, requests for more power will increase. There can be a ratcheting effect. If there are several days of consistently high temperatures, buildings will never cool completely. The demand from local utilities will peak higher and higher each day. Power plants rely upon groundwater to cool their systems. They will struggle to maintain cooling as the water itself heats up. Droughts can diminish the power from hydroelectric plants, especially in the western United States.
If such extreme weather continues to be the norm, the chaos that was unleashed on the grid by Sandy may have been a preview of the kinds of disruptions to the grid, that might become commonplace. As the New York Herald argued in 1859, referring to the Carrington event, “Phenomena are not supposed to have any reference to things past—only to things to come. Therefore, the aurora borealis must be connected with something in the future—war, or pestilence, or famine.” Although the impact of solar storms was not fully understood at the time, the prediction of catastrophe remains valid.
What protective measures are possible?
The Obama administration has taken steps to replace some of the aging satellites that monitor space weather, and extra-high voltage transformers that are vulnerable to solar storms. The administration’s new plan also calls for scientists to establish benchmarks for weather events in space, incorporating something similar to the Richter scale. The strategy also includes assessing the vulnerability of the power grid, increasing international cooperation, and improving solar-flare forecast technology — a crucial step.
But Dr. Peter Pry, Chairman of the EMP Commission, says that neither the White House, nor Congress, is taking the threat seriously enough or acting with the appropriate urgency. According to Dr. Pry, it would cost about two billion dollars— the amount of foreign aid we give to Pakistan — to harden the nation’s power grid to minimize the damage from either a nuclear EMP or a solar flare. “If we suspended that [aid] for one year and put it toward hardening the electrical grid,” Pry says, “we could protect the American people from this threat.”
Is this Science Fiction or Reality?
All of the events described above are plausible and have their roots in history. What could happen? Global Panic. Martial Law. Travel Restrictions. Food and Water Shortages. An Overload of the Medical System. Societal Collapse. Economic Collapse.
This is why we prep. Prepping is insurance against both natural and man-made catastrophic events. The government now requires you to carry medical insurance. Your homeowner’s insurance may include damage from tornadoes. Even though you may never incur damage from a tornado, you pay for that coverage monthly nonetheless. This is what preppers do. We allocate time and resources to protect our families, in the event of seemingly unlikely events, but events that are occurring daily or have historical precedent.
We hope America is never impacted by a major space weather event, but what if?
This is a true story, it just hasn’t happened yet.