Science

solar flare, solar flares, solar eruption
Associated Press/NASA
On Dec. 19, 1973 NASA recorded a solar
flare more than a quarter million miles
across the solar surface.

Severe Solar Flares Could Cause Catastrophic Power Outage in United States

March 30, 2009 10:30 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
A recent report found that for countries relying on technology for life-sustaining infrastructures, a severe solar flare could be more devastating than any prior natural disaster.

Mass Ejection of Solar Plasma Could End Life as We Know It

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A report issued by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in January says that if a coronal mass ejection from the Sun were to hit Earth’s magnetic shield, countries with mass electrical grid systems would experience devastating results.

In the past, coronal mass ejections have affected satellites and communication devices on Earth. On March 10, 1989, a coronal mass ejection erupted from the Sun and reached the Earth’s surface. The currents from this event entered some power grids and caused a power overload in Quebec, triggering a blackout for millions of Canadians that lasted for hours.

New Scientist points out that the United States is extremely vulnerable to coronal mass ejections for two reasons; (1) the high power grids that we use to transmit power would attract currents caused by coronal mass ejections and would ruin transformers, (2) we depend on power for things like sewage treatment, running water and many other life-supporting infrastructures. The loss of power for days or weeks would be deadly for many Americans.

Astrophysicist Sten Odenwald told Scientific American that not preparing for extreme space weather is unwise. “People are of the mind that because nothing too terrible has happened in the past, that something won’t now.”

But what can be done to prepare? We do have systems in place to monitor the sun’s activity, and so if a coronal mass ejection were slow enough, New Scientist observes, we could have enough time to turn off or adjust power grids so that they were less vulnerable to a spike in current.

Background: Solar flares and coronal mass ejections in the past

Solar wind is caused by highly charged plasma particles getting ejected by the sun. Flare-ups of these plasma ejections are what causes space weather, and, when these solar flares interact with the earth’s magnetic field, the aurora borealis. Every 11 years or so the sun experiences increased magnetic activity and solar flares become more common. We are currently in a time of high solar activity that will peak during 2011 or 2012.

Solar flares have been known to disrupt ground communication, cell phone activity, power grids, air travel and satellite activity. In 1989 millions of people in Quebec were left without power after a solar storm knocked out power grids.

Sometimes the sun ejects a large amount of plasma at one time, throwing a ball of plasma into space that travels at more than a million miles an hour—this is called a coronal mass ejection. The first observed a coronal mass ejection was in 1997; five days later the plasma from that ejection disrupted satellite service in the United States.

In the 1800s a coronal mass ejection known as the Carrington event caused aurora borealis at low latitudes and the telegraph system at the time was disrupted.

Related Topics: Volcanoes, asteroids and other natural disasters

Scientists recently discovered an asteroid on a potential collision course with Earth in 2036. Although collision is highly unlikely, this find has incited discussion about how to prevent potential collisions with asteroids in the future.

Two million years ago, Yellowstone National Park experienced a large volcanic eruption. This eruption resulted in a large underground caldera that is thought to be especially dangerous because it has no mountain peak, the peak of a volcano usually allows for gas to escape and pressure to be relieved, it is thought that if a “supervolcano” were to erupt, it would blow off the entire area above the underground volcano, and could potentially be devastating to the United States.
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