Thursday, August 09, 2012

National Academy of Sciences issues major report on threat of solar storms

The National Academy of Sciences has published a report “Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, Workshop Report”. The publication (ISBN 0-309-12770-X) is available for free download as a PDF (registration as an NAS “member” is requested), or for hardcopy purchase for $35 (139 pages).  The NAS (for "National Academies Press") purchase link is here

The workshop appears to have occurred some time ago, in May 2008, and it was inspired somewhat by previous events, including some solar activity in the fall of 2003.

The book has eight chapters (based on workshop sessions), including an Introduction, and is heavily illustrated with colorful photos and diagrams.

The subject matter is how the western (especially US) power grid and satellite infrastructure could be affected by a large solar storm, with large coronal mass ejections across the Earth’s orbit. 

The basic premise of the NAS’s concern is that huge solar storms are LF/HC, “low frequency, high consequence” events.  There has developed a tendency in profit-driven business not to budget or allow for these possibilities (partly because of short-term pressure from equities markets).  Therefore, power companies, as well as Internet and telecommunications companies, may not have the necessary incentives to harden themselves against such events, with potentially catastrophic results for large areas of the general public.

The report suggests that there is at least a 7% chance of a major storm intercepting the Earth’s orbit in the next decade, with a heightened risk toward the end of 2012 and into 2013.  The report suggests that a really big storm could destroy more than 300 of the 2100 high voltage transformers in the US system, and that such transformers cannot be repaired, but must be replaced, a manufacturing process than can take a year or more.  (Maybe that begs the question of having a number of these in reserve now.  After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, power companies had difficulties getting smaller transformers here even after tree brush had been cleared.)  Much of this is summarized this morning at on this summary
NAS does provide some reverse projection of what a 1989 event (in Quebec), a 1921 event, or even the 1859 Carrington Event (which it chronicles in some detail) could do today, and the predictions are not pretty.

The NAS also says that, paradoxically, a grid could be more vulnerable to damage during periods of low or moderate use (as at night in spring or fall) than during heavy usage (summer heat waves).  That is like saying that some electronics do better when left on all the time.  NAS offers a number of charts that breaks down the risk according to even subtype, including geomagnetic disturbance and radio disruption.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NREC) has disputed the idea that so many transformers could be lost, but says a voltage collapse could happen.  NERC has a PDF press release from Feb. 29, 2012, “Loss of Reactive Power, Voltage Instability, Most Likely Outcome from GMD, NERC Report Finds”, link here

The report has some scare sub-headlines, like “a year without power?”  and also mentions the EMP  (electromagnetic pulse) threat from terrorists, which would be worse because that would fry all digital electronics, even those turned off.

The social aspects of this problem – including the lack of preparedness of people to live at a lower physical standard and with more physical "family" self-sufficiency and more contribution to social capital – is certainly worth more discussion.

Pictures (2 and 3), are actually from the National Science Foundation, located in the Ballston section of Arlington VA.  The NAS is a separate entity (often overlapping), still located in Washington DC.

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