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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Thought About Solar Maximum


We have all heard about the current solar maximum and its possible effects here on earth. Living in Quebec, I remember the solar flares in 1989 knocking out the power grid for hours.  This was during a solar maximum.  In 1972, sporadic, but temporary phone outages were reported around North America.  In 1958 & 1959, radio communications were disrupted in areas of the US.

All in all, from what I've read, disruptions to radio, telephony, and power grids have been localized and temporary.  However, we do live in a more technology dependant society now.  The biggest risk in my opinion would be to the power grid.  Electromagnetic storms can cause power spikes in electrical transmission lines, overloading transformers.  Remember electronics 101...if you pass a magnet by a conductive wire, you induce an electrical current.  Solar flares recreate this by sending electromagnetic charges into our atmosphere.  This effect can be observed in the accounts of the 1882 solar storms where telegraph wires became so overcharged that some operators were "shocked" by their instruments. 

One fact remains constant in all accounts...the effects were temporary.  Does that mean we have nothing to worry about in the current solar maximum?  Well, even the scientists seem to be divided on the topic.  Some will insist that this will be the most spectacular solar max in history and will knock out all electronics permanently.  Still others expect no real disturbance other than the occasional regional problems seen in the past.

My research on the topic reveals that the most vulnerable systems are those with transmission cables that run for miles.  Remember your electronics 101? Same idea.  These systems include power lines, telephone lines, and cable distribution lines.  Current can be generated in these wires by electromagnetic energy passing by them.  This current can and likely would reach dangerous levels to electronic devices connected to them including computers, televisions, and other home appliances.  Will your battery powered radio suddenly fry?  Likely not.  The current generated in devices with a limited amount of conductive material would be minimal at best.

Personally, my concerns lay mostly with infrastructure.  Who knows how severe these storms will become and how well (or not) our infrastructure is protected from power surges.  Disruptions could vary from regional and only a few hours long, to a widespread system wide failure IN A WORST CASE SCENARIO.

Either way, I plan on being as ready as I can be.  Consider that the power grid, telephone, cable, and internet, as well as commercial radio may be unavailable until the systems can be repaired.  The more remotely located your home is, the more time it will take for service to be restored.  As an example, a catastrophic failure in the power grid, could take months to completely restore.  If communications satellites were to be rendered useless, these could take years to launch new ones into orbit. 

In any case...have the basics at the ready.  Water, non perishable food, cooking source....you know the drill.  Do I really need to preach to the choir?

2 comments:

Ancient Dragon said...

I have some knowledge of this field, and I would have to say that there are good arguments on both sides of the field. One thing to remember is that while things are far more complex in the power system, the protective relaying equipment is far more advanced, and the system far more reactive to harmful conditons than in 1989.

That said, were we to get whacked full on with a Carrington Event sized CME, it would be very disruptive, to say the least.

Interestingly, Japan produces ( produced?)fully 40% of the world's electronics, including components made nowhere else. Right now they aren't producing much of anything. Imagine a nice big EMP event just now....

Couldn't happen, could it?

Anonymous said...

The Book Preppers Road March was a interesting and fun fictional account of someone surviving after a solar storm caused technology to fail