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Geomagnetic Storm

February 28, 2012

A recent report by Homeland Security establishes that a rare Geomagnetic Storm could cause substantial damage to the grid in North America and Northern Europe.

The science behind the threat is that eruptions on the sun (solar storms, seen as sunspots) could induce ground currents (GICs) in the Earth capable of damaging extra-high-voltage transformers and other elements of the grid.

The largest known geomagnetic storm occurred in1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the storm was “three times as intense as the most severe geomagnetic storm of the past thirty years.”

The Carrington storm took 17 hours, 40 minutes to reach the Earth, and it produced auroras seen around the world.

The Carrington Event is vividly described in the book: The Sun Kings, The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington & the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, by Stuart Clark.

A geomagnetic storm in 1989 caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

The report says, “GICs can overload the grid, causing severe voltage regulation problems and, potentially, widespread power outages. Moreover, GICs can cause intense internal heating in extra-high-voltage transformers, putting them at risk of failure or even permanent damage.” And, there are “300 EHV transformers in the United States” that are at risk.

Satellites, GPS and all communication systems are also at risk with a severe geomagnetic storm.

EHV transformers take at least a year to build and there are only a few manufacturers in the world capable of building these units; possibly none in the United States.

It should be noted that all services that depend on electricity, such as lighting, elevators, gasoline station pumps, refrigeration, etc. won’t function when the grid goes down.

There is the potential for extended outages, weeks or months, that could cause severe unrest in affected populations.

These storms are virtually impossible to predict. Fortunately, storms of sufficient intensity to bring down electric grids are rare. In North America, a severe storm would probably only affect the northern parts of the United States and the major cities of Canada, but these are intensely populated areas.

The report indicates that hardening all grids, by using capacitors, etc., is probably economically prohibitive.

No matter how small the probability, a Carrington-like event is bound to occur in the future.

While there is no immediate solution to the threat, it spotlights how the sun affects the Earth.  Could Svensmark be right in his assertion that solar storms, or the lack thereof, affect the climate?

The book, The Sun Kings, provides an historic perspective on the sun’s relationship with the Earth.

 

Notes:

I first became aware of the report from Anthony Watt’s, Watts Up With That, Web Site at http://wattsupwiththat.com/

The “Geomagnetic Storms” report is available at, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/57/25/46891645.pdf

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