POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 2, 2010
The sun is the source and sustainer of life, but it can also be the great disrupter of the infrastructure of modern society.
Twisted magnetic fluxes on the million-mile ball of fire burst like huge bubbles and generate solar storms that spit charged particles and radiation into space.
Ground currents induced during resulting geomagnetic storms can melt the copper windings of electrical transformers as sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area.
A small gust of solar wind hit Earth's magnetic field on Wednesday, sparking a minor geomagnetic storm.
NASA's solar scientists see the beginning of what looks like a period of intense activity as we enter a new sunspot cycle.
The Space Weather Enterprise Forum took place in Washington, D.C., on June 8. Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, explained its purpose: "The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we're getting together to discuss."
The ultimate goal of the National Space Weather Program is to improve the nation's ability to prepare, mitigate and respond to potentially devastating space weather events.
Five major solar storms have had a severe impact on Earth in the past century, the most recent in 1989 when a geomagnetic power failure caused 6 million people in Quebec to lose power for nine hours during an unusually cold winter. Two extreme events that occurred in 1859 and again in 1921 could pose serious threats to the global infrastructure if they were to happen today.
A 2009 NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences modeled the effect on the modern power grid of a geomagnetic storm equivalent to the May 1921 event, which produced ground currents as much as 10 times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm. The most powerful event, recorded in 1859, was about 50 percent stronger than that.
More than 350 transformers are at risk of permanent damage, which could leave 130 million people without power. The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with "water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on."
The U.S. House of Representatives moved this week to spend $100 million to protect the nation's power grid. NASA has deployed a fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft to study the sun and its eruptions and provide us with up-to-the-minute information about what's happening on our favorite star.
"Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we're making rapid progress," says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.
We cannot prevent solar storms but reliable forecasting is key. With a few hours' notice officials can take measures to reduce damage such as disconnecting wires, shielding vulnerable electronics, powering down critical hardware and rerouting polar flights. A few hours without power is better than a few weeks.