Oct 272010
 

Solar Wind

The solar storms that cause the stunning aurora borealis and aurora australis (or northern and southern polar lights) also have the potential to knock out telecommunications equipment and navigational systems and cause blackouts of electrical grids.

With the frequency of the sun’s flares following an 11-year cycle of solar activity and the next solar maximum expected around 2013, scientists are bracing for an overdue, once-in-100 year event that could cause widespread power blackouts and cripple electricity grids around the world. It sounds like an insurmountable problem but a new NASA project called “Solar Shield” is working to develop a forecasting system that can mitigate the impacts of such events and keep the electrons flowing.

In 1859 the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, known as the Solar Superstorm, or the Carrington Event, caused telegraph systems all over Europe and North America to fail. Today, the effects of severe solar storms are much more noticeable with the total length of high-voltage power lines crisscrossing North America increasing nearly tenfold since the 1950s. This has turned power grids into giant antennas for the geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) – the ground level manifestation of space weather that can overload circuits, trip breakers, and in extreme cases melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers, causing permanent damage.

Just such an event occurred in Quebec on March 13, 1989, when a geomagnetic storm much less severs than the Carrington Event knocked out power across the entire province for more than nine hours. In addition to Quebec, the storm damaged transformers in New Jersey and Great Britain and caused more than 200 power anomalies across the continental U.S.

Although many utility companies have taken steps to reinforce their grids, with demand for power growing faster than the grids themselves modern networks are stressed to the limit and vulnerable to the effects of a severe geomagnetic storms. With the possibility of long-lasting large scale blackouts a real possibility due to widespread transformer damage the Solar Shield project leader Antti Pulkkinen believes the project can “zero in on specific transformers and predict which of them are going to be hit hardest by a severe space weather event.”

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