The next "big one" solar storm could send decimate our electrical infrastructure
- Solar storms are a natural part of the Sun's lifecycle.
- Our planet has some natural defenses against the worst of such events.
- Our technology, however, is not so well protected.
Our Sun is one of the main reasons we exist on this beautiful planet. It heats us, sustains us, and will ultimately destroy our little blue dot, although not for several billion years.
But that is not the end of the story. Our Sun, from time to time, also bathes us in highly charged, high-speed particles, a phenomenon called "space weather."
While our planet has shields against this most of the time (or else we'd have never evolved), these waves of particles can prove very dangerous for technology. In a world so reliant on hardware that processes 1s and 0s and runs many aspects of our lives, could the next severe space weather event send us back 100s of years?
Let's find out.
What is space weather?
Space weather describes variations in the space environment that results from activity on the Sun's surface. Although the Sun is very far from Earth, about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers), this space weather can impact our planet and the rest of the Solar System.
At its worst, it even has the potential to damage satellites and can even trigger power outages on Earth! But, you may be wondering, how exactly does the Sun impact Earth this way?
The Sun continuously spews gas and particles into space in a constant stream of particles known as the solar wind. The particles that make up this "wind" originate from the Sun's corona, its heated outer atmosphere.
Since these particles tend to be charged, they can, in theory, seriously disrupt any electrical systems they encounter. Not only that, but these particles are moving up to a million miles per hour toward Earth in the process.
While this might sound ominous, our home planet does have a strong natural defense to protect everything on its surface; the Earth's magnetic field, or magnetosphere.
The Earth's atmosphere also acts like a giant blanket of gases. We are largely shielded from the solar wind bombardment by our magnetic field and atmosphere, which work together like a gigantic planetary-scale shield.
This shield effectively deflects most of the Sun's solar wind, protecting the planet. The side of the magnetic field that faces the Sun is compressed and flattened by the particles. The magnetic field's other side extends into a long tail in a teardrop shape.
However, sometimes charged particles penetrate this shield. They then flow along Earth's magnetic field lines towards the poles. When these particles hit the atmosphere, we are treated to glowing light shows known as auroras.
How dangerous is space weather?
In short, it can be potentially very dangerous for us here on Earth. To our technology, that is, not to life on Earth.
The Sun's magnetic activity can occasionally cause intense solar storms. During these storms, the solar wind becomes significantly more potent. These more substantial, more violent space weather events can be hazardous.
Solar flares may also occur during a solar storm. These are brief eruptions of intense high-energy radiation from the Sun's surface. Massive amounts of energy are shot through space at the speed of light by these events. They can occasionally also be accompanied by powerful solar eruptions of energetic and highly magnetized plasma known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
When these outbursts reach Earth, anything not enshrouded within Earth's magnetic field or atmosphere can be in genuine danger of severe damage. Satellites, for example, are particularly vulnerable to such events.
While that may not sound like a severe problem initially, remember that our modern world relies on satellites for communications and navigation.
And this exact thing happened only a few months ago when a solar storm, albeit relatively small, knocked out a news transmission satellite.
But, even infrastructure "safely" located on Earth's surface might not be entirely safe from such events. Electricity power grids, for example, can and will be affected by solar storm events.
While most people on Earth are relatively safe, astronauts in space can also be at risk from solar storm radiation.
So, is there any way to predict when extreme space weather might be incoming?
In a way, yes, but such early warning systems aren't of great use. This is because solar storms can occur abruptly and impact Earth within minutes.
The timing and intensity of solar storms are subject to scientific prediction, similar to how scientific prediction is used to generate a weather forecast for weather on Earth.
In fact, NASA and other agencies operate a collection of instruments that keep an eye on the Sun and space weather.
For instance, NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) keeps track of coronal mass ejections. Other satellites, such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) R-series, track the Sun and look for solar storms and variations in the solar wind.
These give scientists the data they need to send out alarms that could help stop any damage.
How do solar storms damage electronics?
As mentioned above, solar storms (especially those from solar flares or CMEs) are made of masses of charged and fast-moving particles. When large storms are directed toward Earth, they can, and often do, cause haywire with electronics in much the same way as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
Just like when a massive electromagnetic field is created when an EMP weapon is "detonated," this can result in short-circuiting various electronic devices, including computers, satellites, radios, radar receivers, and even ordinary traffic lights.
But how, exactly?
An EMP is an intense burst of electromagnetic energy that can travel at the speed of light, which means that it could simultaneously damage all susceptible electronic devices in its path. This is inconvenient for anyone affected and can have severe implications if large numbers of electronics are damaged quickly.
Dielectric insulators (like MOSFETs —metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors) can crack or leak when exposed to intense bursts of EM energy, and reverse-biased junctions can experience avalanche breakdowns.
Electrons can freely migrate between the source (power supply) and drain once devices like MOSFETs have been compromised since they can no longer switch or control current flow. This process can also result in a significant build-up of heat in circuits.
Ohm's rule states that because semiconductors have a negative temperature coefficient, greater voltages tend to increase the amount of current in electrical circuits, which in turn causes a chain reaction in heat generation.
Burnouts will most certainly result from this heat, which, while probably not high enough to melt semiconductors, is usually sufficient to melt thin metal wires, soldering, and epoxy. It can also melt, perhaps even ignite, plastic components.
In many cases, relatively little energy is needed to start this catastrophic failure in the grid- or battery-powered devices.
The power supply (whether it comes from a battery or the mains) can flow unhindered after the initial EMP pulse and with broken insulators, wreaking havoc on electrical circuitry.
Because of this, one of the most significant possible effects of a strong enough solar storm could be the cascading harm caused to digital infrastructure. The failure of one component in the system might potentially result in an overload in another, which would then cause another, and so on throughout the network.
The switch mode power supply (SMPS) blowouts resulting from this cascading impact would cause electrical spikes in the power grid. This may theoretically lead to hundreds of thousands of these failing simultaneously in areas "hit" by a solar storm.
What impact would a severe solar storm have on modern society?
Our modern societies are in a period often referred to as the information age, which is increasingly dependent on electronic systems that use parts highly vulnerable to high electric currents and voltages.
Semiconductors play a significant role in controlling many of these electronic systems. The local heating during an EMP can cause semiconductor devices to malfunction. Semi-conductive chip failure might ruin business operations, railroad networks, phone and power infrastructure, and water supply access.
Equipment used in businesses is particularly susceptible to EMP effects. All computers that are embedded in military equipment, such as signal processors, electronic flight controls, and digital engine control systems, as well as those used in data processing systems, communications systems, displays, industrial control applications, including road and rail signaling, are potentially susceptible to the EMP effect.
Receivers of all kinds are susceptible to EMPs, making telecommunications equipment vulnerable to such events. As a result, electronic equipment used in radar and electronic warfare, satellite, microwave, UHF, VHF, HF, and low band communications, as well as television technology, might all be affected by an EMP.
Additionally vulnerable are vehicles with electronic ignition systems and ignition chips.
Railroad tracks, large antennae, pipelines, cables, wires in structures, and metal fencing are a few additional significant EMP collectors. Even while objects underneath are partially sheltered from an EMP by the ground, they may still act as collectors, and these collectors can transfer the EMP energy to a larger facility.
So, can anything be done to help prevent this?
The two main methods for defending against EMP effects are protection and hardening.
Shielding with metal is the first technique. This consists of a continuous piece of metal, such as steel or copper, used to effectively encase sensitive electronics and protect them from the worst effects of EMPs. However, any holes in the shield must be smaller than the wavelength of the radiation tat is being kept out, or the shield will not create an unbroken conducting surface.
Because of the likelihood of there being small holes, a metal cage typically does not entirely shield anything within it, however. As a result, this kind of shielding frequently includes extra components to build the barrier.
Most of the time, only a tiny fraction of a millimeter thickness of metal is required to provide sufficient protection. This barrier must entirely enclose the object being toughened. For example, electronic goods housed in plastic housing can be protected by coating the inside of the housing with metallic ink.
The second technique, customized hardening, is a more economical way to harden. In this approach, only the most delicate components and circuits undergo a tougher redesign.
The more challenging elements can handle much higher currents. Although testing of this technology revealed unforeseen failures, it is believed that it could help make current systems less vulnerable.
One illustration is the replacement of all metallic cabling in networks with optical fiber alternatives, especially for older copper wiring. Others include adding safety features to grid power interfaces and antenna feeds.
Another alternative is using conductive enclosures like a Faraday cage for crucial electronic systems. Although, systems inside the cage still require power or connectivity from outside, which can still be a security risk.
Electromagnetic arresting devices are also quite helpful in such situations.
While some people may be able to accomplish this in their own homes, it is crucial to remember that protecting the primary grid and telecom networks is more critical. If an EMP bomb is set off, a safe, functional computer will be useless without grid electricity or an internet connection.
For most industrialized countries, retroactive hardening of this kind would be expensive and time-consuming. Still, if specialists are right, solar weather events, and even e-bombs, could be a ticking time bomb. Some consider that an intense enough EMP burst will be observed, not if, but when.
Only when decision-makers in governments are persuaded to consider the issue seriously rather than dismiss it as occult or ethereal fantasy will countries be able to strengthen their electronic defenses. Even if they never come in handy.
It would save time and shouldn't add that much extra expense (estimates range from 10 to 20%) at the point of purchase or commission if newer devices and installations could be "hardened" from the beginning.
Can a solar flare destroy the electric grid?
Extreme space weather has the potential to seriously damage electricity grids and other vital infrastructure, knock out or even destroy satellites, and interfere with communications. According to experts, it is exceedingly difficult to predict the precise level of damage and the ripple effects in the worst-case scenario for electrical grids. Still, any risk assessment is better than none.
Monitoring and understanding solar activity is challenging in and of itself, and location-specific elements like local geology and grid layout impact the short- and long-term costs of power outages and infrastructure damage.
And this is not just a hypothetical problem. There have been some severe power outages in the past.
Hydro-Québec, a public utility, lost service in the early hours of March 13, 1989. For nine hours, the province of Québec was without power, disrupting numerous areas of daily life in society.
The underlying cause for the blackout was swiftly determined to be a massive solar flare that occurred on March 10 and released a vast cloud of solar plasma toward Earth. The resulting blackout was the direct consequence of space weather.
"The initial story was, 'OK, there had been a lot of activity on the sun, and then a big magnetic storm and a number of power systems had problems,' but there wasn't a lot of detail there," explained David Boteler, a scientist with the Canadian Hazards Information Service at the government's National Resources Canada.
"Trying to do a hindsight investigation, we're very conscious of that lack of data, and there's been quite a bit of work done trying to fill in the gaps," he added,
And that wasn't the worst we've ever seen.
On August 28, 1859, the most significant solar outburst ever recorded occurred. Often called the "1859 Solar Superstorm" or the "Carrington Event" after amateur astronomer Richard C. Carrington observed and documented it, this event made history.
Instead of the usual three or four days, the coronal mass ejection (CME) that occurred reached Earth in about 17 hours. This event resulted in what is thought to be the largest geomagnetic storm ever observed.
During the event, aurorae were spotted all around the world. Europe and North America both experienced a telegraph system failure. Thankfully, however, societies were less reliant on electronic equipment than we are today.
While speaking about the more recent Quebec blackout at a conference, Boteler and colleagues discovered not one but two significant coronal mass ejections (CMEs) during the event after analyzing solar data gathered worldwide in the week preceding the blackout.
"It's not just any old magnetic storm," Boteler said. "We think it was actually the shock of that second CME arrival that caused the Hydro-Québec blackout."
The Hydro-Québec blackout serves as a cautionary story that we may not yet have enough understanding of space weather to predict, prevent, or at the very least quickly recover from a similar geomagnetic storm. It is, in effect, the standard example of how solar activity may interrupt life on Earth.
The narrative of Hydro-Québec is particularly compelling at this time when solar activity is intensifying as the Sun officially enters the solar cycle 25.
As the name suggests, this is the 25th cycle since extensive records of solar sunspot activity began in 1755. It had a minimum smoothed sunspot number of 1.8 when it officially started in December 2019. It is anticipated to last until around 2030.
Experts conveyed that a specialist community, including government research organizations, administration, and industry, was highly concerned about the potential effects of space weather on the electrical grid during a June 8 virtual discussion at a joint meeting of two groups within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board.
They added that even if the issue is becoming more well-known, further research is still necessary.
Experts are currently designing and deploying instruments to assess the threat more accurately. They are still figuring out how to collaborate with academic institutions, governmental agencies, and private industry to address a problem with extremely difficult scientific and engineering issues and practical and social challenges.
The community has learned a lot since the 1989 blackout, but more work has to be done, according to Bill Radasky, president and managing engineer of electromagnetic engineering consultancy Metatech.
Imperial College London professor Jonathan Eastwood told Space.com in an interview in July 2022, "In the U.K. at least, space weather investment is very much driven by understanding the socioeconomic impact."
"There are a lot of questions about what is reasonable to invest to defend against space weather based on what the likely impact is going to be," he added.
Before governments, utilities, and other stakeholders undertake expensive options, such as retrofitting entire power networks, there's still much about space weather left to be studied.
There is still much to learn about space weather before governments, utilities, and other stakeholders adopt expensive measures, like revamping entire power networks.
Eastwood has participated in a U.K. initiative called Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk (SWIMMR), which focuses on building robust, sensitive instruments, forecast modeling, and risk assessment.
The European Space Agency has programs to gather information on the Sun. For instance, the Vigil mission will launch a variety of instruments into a stable orbit at Lagrange Point 5.
At the same time, the Distributed Space Weather Sensor System, which is closer to Earth, might consist of a fleet of specialized satellites (D3S), said Eastwood.
Power grid operators may be able to lessen the consequences of a storm and get ready to resume service as soon as possible with the help of an advanced warning system, according to panel members at the joint meeting. Models that forecast the probability of a whole or partial grid collapse, as well as some validation that those models and reactions function, would be needed for this type of technology.
So, just how vulnerable are we to severe solar storms?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. power grid is made up of more than 11,000 power plants, ranging from nuclear, coal, and hydroelectric to solar panels and wind turbines, associated switches, transformers, high-voltage transmission lines, and distribution lines to industrial, commercial, and residential customers.
It also includes 3,300 utilities and 1,700 non-utility power producers and more than two million miles of power lines. That is a lot of hardware, but how vulnerable is this infrastructure to the next "big one" solar storm?
Well, things are not looking good, but all is not lost.
According to a recent study from 2020, some crucial areas—specifically, parts of the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard—seem more vulnerable to solar-induced power outages than others.
The study found, however, that taking a few relatively simple precautions could significantly lessen the harm caused when a solar storm strikes Earth. Among them is keeping electrical transformers in the nation's strategic reserves.
The latest USGS solar geoelectric hazard study was coauthored by Jeffrey Love, a research geophysicist at the USGS in Golden, Colorado. He is one of several geophysical experts who have warned that geoelectric "perfect storms" will occur; the question is not if they will, but when.
However, according to the study, the very rocks under infrastructure could be a saving grace.
Some rock types, like sedimentary formations, are electrically conductive. They are hence better at dissipating electric fields brought on by such storms. The country's areas with a greater abundance of these conducting-type rocks will therefore be more resistant to a magnetic storm.
In the case of the United States, that just so happens to be most of it.
However, some areas with poor geological fortune also have more electrically resistant rock, including igneous and metamorphic formations. High-voltage electrical wires in such regions of the country will therefore be more vulnerable to geomagnetic disturbances caused by solar flares.
Utilities in those areas need to be aware that, in the event of a large solar storm impacting Earth, power interruptions and outages—as well as potential blown transformers—are more likely.
If things go badly, sectors of the electric grid that don't have enough backup transformers and other equipment may find themselves unable to function until they can switch to backup systems, according to Love. Many in the hardest-hit areas could go without electricity for days or weeks until equipment could be brought or created from scratch if there aren't enough transformers and other devices.
And this is not just theory. For example, much of the Quebec region sits above areas with older, geologically resistant rock, which was likely a factor in the severity of the 1989 Quebec outage. As a result of the very long lines in Quebec's power grid systems and the integration of an electric field there, high voltage was produced.
Because the 1989 geomagnetic storm was more intense above the Canadian province, the United States escaped its full force.
According to Jeffrey Love, a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and author of the previously mentioned study, three things significantly determine how a power grid reacts to an intense solar storm.
- The first is the size and location of the storm itself
- The second is how sensitive the minerals are on a geological level to electrical activity in the atmosphere in any given area.
- The third element has to do with how high-voltage lines are oriented. For example, electrical lines running north to south will experience the highest voltages if the geoelectric field during a solar storm points north to south.
Love also points out that another Carrington Event is not only possible but inevitable. Unlike in 1859, an event of that magnitude would be devastating today due to our heavy reliance on technology.
This, according to Love, makes it even more crucial to research and map out the risks of this occurrence beforehand. He adds that grid managers in the eastern states of Maine to Virginia, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin must be aware that they could be impacted more severely than other areas by a geoelectrical "perfect storm" than other areas.
If those operators are organized and prepared in advance, they will have options for how to respond. Additionally, they can redirect power through less-affected areas, add more generating capacity, and change out any available transformers from a strategic store.
Eight U.S. electric providers built a stockpile of transformers in 2015 for use in an emergency. President Trump of the United States gave agencies instructions in a March 2019 executive order to strengthen the grid's resistance against electromagnetic pulses.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan in the same month. Those are steps in the right direction toward being ready for any upcoming geoelectrical storms.
Love stated that “space weather effects generated over our heads and the geology underneath our feet… affect our technological systems”
Ultimately, it is up to us how we use this knowledge.
And that is your lot for today.
Solar storms are an occupational hazard in our technologically dependent world. While we can not stop them from happening, we can anticipate and prepare for such events to minimize the impact on our infrastructure now and in the future.
The next "big one" doesn't need to be something to fear.
All it takes is a little planning and the will to do so. As the famous adage goes, "failing to plan is planning to fail."