by Michael Brooks
23 March 2009
IT IS midnight on 22 September 2012 and
the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of
Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora
this far south but their fascination is short-lived.
Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim
and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment.
Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the
entire eastern half of the US is without power.
A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's
infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a
developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also
struggling to recover from the same fateful event - a violent storm,
150 million kilometers away on the surface of the sun.
It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn't create so profound a
disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA (Severe
Space Weather Events - Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts)
and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
in January this year claims it could do just that.
Over the last few decades, western civilizations have busily sown
the seeds of their own destruction.
Our modern way of life, with its
reliance on technology, has unwittingly exposed us to an
extraordinary danger: plasma balls spewed from the surface of the
sun could wipe out our power grids, with catastrophic consequences.
A fierce solar storm
could lead to a global disaster on an unprecedented scale
Consortium / ESA / NASA)
The projections of just how catastrophic
make chilling reading.
"We're moving closer and closer to
the edge of a possible disaster," says Daniel Baker, a
weather expert based at the University of Colorado in Boulder,
and chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report.
It is hard to conceive of the sun wiping
out a large amount of our hard-earned progress. Nevertheless, it is
The surface of the sun is a roiling mass
of plasma - charged high-energy particles - some of which escape the
surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to
time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball
known as a coronal mass ejection (see at bottom page "When hell comes to Earth").
If one should hit the Earth's magnetic shield, the result could be
The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes
in the configuration of Earth's magnetic field which, in turn,
induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were
not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The
greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to
convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful
The increased DC current creates strong
magnetic fields that saturate a transformer's magnetic core.
The result is runaway current in the
transformer's copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts. This
is exactly what happened in the Canadian province of Quebec in March
1989, and six million people spent 9 hours without electricity.
But things could get much, much worse
The most serious space weather event in history happened in 1859. It
is known as the
Carrington event, after the British amateur
astronomer Richard Carrington, who was the first to note its cause:
"two patches of intensely bright and
white light" emanating from a large group of sunspots.
The Carrington event comprised eight
days of severe space weather.
There were eyewitness accounts of stunning auroras, even at
equatorial latitudes. The world's telegraph networks experienced
severe disruptions, and Victorian magnetometers were driven off the
Though a solar outburst could conceivably be more powerful,
"we haven't found an example of
anything worse than a Carrington event", says James Green, head
of NASA's planetary division and an expert on the events of
"From a scientific perspective, that would be the one that
we'd want to survive."
However, the prognosis from the
NAS analysis is that, thanks to our technological prowess, many of us
There are two problems to face.
The first is the modern electricity
grid, which is designed to operate at ever higher voltages over ever
larger areas. Though this provides a more efficient way to run the
electricity networks, minimizing power losses and wastage through
overproduction, it has made them much more vulnerable to space
weather. The high-power grids act as particularly efficient
antennas, channeling enormous direct currents into the power
The second problem is the grid's interdependence with the systems
that support our lives: water and sewage treatment, supermarket
delivery infrastructures, power station controls, financial markets
and many others all rely on electricity.
Put the two together, and it is clear
that a repeat of the Carrington event could produce a catastrophe
the likes of which the world has never seen.
"It's just the opposite of how we
usually think of natural disasters," says John Kappenman, a
power industry analyst with the Metatech Corporation of Goleta,
California, and an advisor to the NAS committee that produced
"Usually the less developed regions of the world are
most vulnerable, not the highly sophisticated technological
According to the NAS report, a severe
space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that
would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds,
cutting off the power for more than 130 million people (see map).
From that moment, the clock is ticking for America.
First to go - immediately for some people - is drinkable water.
Anyone living in a high-rise apartment, where water has to be pumped
to reach them, would be cut off straight away. For the rest,
drinking water will still come through the taps for maybe half a
day. With no electricity to pump water from reservoirs, there is no
more after that.
There is simply no electrically powered transport: no trains,
underground or overground. Our just-in-time culture for delivery
networks may represent the pinnacle of efficiency, but it means that
supermarket shelves would empty very quickly - delivery trucks could
only keep running until their tanks ran out of fuel, and there is no
electricity to pump any more from the underground tanks at filling
Back-up generators would run at pivotal sites - but only until their
fuel ran out. For hospitals, that would mean about 72
hours of running a bare-bones, essential care only, service.
that, no more modern healthcare.
72 hours of
The truly shocking finding is that this whole situation would not
improve for months, maybe years: melted transformer hubs cannot be
repaired, only replaced.
"From the surveys I've done, you
might have a few spare transformers around, but installing a new
one takes a well-trained crew a week or more," says Kappenman.
"A major electrical utility might have one suitably trained
crew, maybe two."
Within a month, then, the handful of
spare transformers would be used up. The rest will have to be built
to order, something that can take up to 12 months.
Even when some systems are capable of receiving power again, there
is no guarantee there will be any to deliver. Almost all natural gas
and fuel pipelines require electricity to operate.
Coal-fired power stations usually keep
reserves to last 30 days, but with no transport systems running to
bring more fuel, there will be no electricity in the second month.
30 days of
Nuclear power stations wouldn't fare much better. They are
programmed to shut down in the event of serious grid problems and
are not allowed to restart until the power grid is up and running.
With no power for heating, cooling or refrigeration systems, people
could begin to die within days. There is immediate danger for those
who rely on medication. Lose power to New Jersey, for instance, and
you have lost a major centre of production of pharmaceuticals for
the entire US.
Perishable medications such as insulin
will soon be in short supply.
"In the US alone there are a million
people with diabetes," Kappenman says. "Shut down production,
distribution and storage and you put all those lives at risk in
very short order."
Help is not coming any time soon,
either. If it is dark from the eastern seaboard to Chicago, some
affected areas are hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away from
anyone who might help.
And those willing to help are likely to be
ill-equipped to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster.
"If a Carrington event happened now,
it would be like a hurricane Katrina, but 10 times worse," says
Paul Kintner, a plasma physicist at Cornell University in
Ithaca, New York.
In reality, it would be much worse than
Hurricane Katrina's societal and economic impact has been
measured at $81 billion to $125 billion. According to the NAS
report, the impact of what it terms a "severe geomagnetic storm
scenario" could be as high as $2 trillion. And that's just the first
year after the storm.
The NAS puts the recovery time at four
to 10 years.
It is questionable whether the US would ever bounce
4-10 years to
"I don't think the NAS report is
scaremongering," says Mike Hapgood, who chairs the
European Space Agency's space weather team.
"Scientists are conservative by nature and this group is really
thoughtful," he says. "This is a fair and balanced report."
Such nightmare scenarios are not
restricted to North America.
High latitude nations such as Sweden and
Norway have been aware for a while that, while regular views of the
aurora are pretty, they are also reminders of an ever-present threat
to their electricity grids. However, the trend towards installing
extremely high voltage grids means that lower latitude countries are
also at risk.
For example, China is on the way to implementing a
1000-kilovolt electrical grid, twice the voltage of the US grid.
This would be a superb conduit for space
weather-induced disaster because the grid's efficiency to act as an
antenna rises as the voltage between the grid and the ground
"China is going to discover at some
point that they have a problem," Kappenman says.
Neither is Europe sufficiently prepared.
Responsibility for dealing with space weather issues is "very
fragmented" in Europe, says Hapgood.
Europe's electricity grids, on the other hand, are highly
interconnected and extremely vulnerable to cascading failures. In
2006, the routine switch-off of a small part of Germany's grid - to
let a ship pass safely under high-voltage cables - caused a cascade
power failure across western Europe.
In France alone, five million people
were left without electricity for two hours.
"These systems are so complicated we
don't fully understand the effects of twiddling at one place,"
Hapgood says. "Most of the time it's alright, but occasionally
it will get you."
The good news is that, given enough
warning, the utility companies can take precautions, such as
adjusting voltages and loads, and restricting transfers of energy so
that sudden spikes in current don't cause cascade failures. There is
still more bad news, however. Our early warning system is becoming
more unreliable by the day.
By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is
NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE).
The probe, launched in 1997, has a solar
orbit that keeps it directly between the sun and Earth. Its
uninterrupted view of the sun means it gives us continuous reports
on the direction and velocity of the solar wind and other streams of
charged particles that flow past its sensors. ACE can provide
between 15 and 45 minutes' warning of any incoming geomagnetic
The power companies need about 15
minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would
However, observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during
the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was
traveling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where
ACE is positioned to Earth.
"It arrived faster than we can do
anything," Hapgood says.
There is another problem. ACE is 11
years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan. The
onboard detectors are not as sensitive as they used to be, and there
is no telling when they will finally give up the ghost.
its sensors become saturated in the event of a really powerful solar
"It was built to look at average
conditions rather than extremes," Baker says.
He was part of a space weather
commission that three years ago warned about the problems of relying
"It's been on my mind for a long
time," he says. "To not have a spare, or a strategy to replace
it if and when it should fail, is rather foolish."
There is no replacement for ACE due any
time soon. Other solar observation satellites, such as the Solar
and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) can provide some
warning, but with less detailed information and - crucially - much
"It's quite hard to assess what the
impact of losing ACE will be," Hapgood says. "We will largely
lose the early warning capability."
The world will, most probably, yawn at
the prospect of a devastating solar storm until it happens. Kintner
says his students show a "deep indifference" when he lectures on the
impact of space weather.
But if policy-makers show a similar
indifference in the face of the latest NAS report, it could cost
tens of millions of lives, Kappenman reckons.
"It could conceivably be the worst
natural disaster possible," he says.
The report outlines the worst case
scenario for the US. The "perfect storm" is most likely on a spring
or autumn night in a year of heightened solar activity - something
2012. Around the equinoxes, the orientation of the Earth's
field to the sun makes us particularly vulnerable to a plasma
What's more, at these times of year, electricity demand is
relatively low because no one needs too much heating or air
conditioning. With only a handful of the US grid's power stations
running, the system relies on computer algorithms shunting large
amounts of power around the grid and this leaves the network highly
vulnerable to sudden spikes.
If ACE has failed by then, or a plasma ball flies at us too fast for
any warning from ACE to reach us, the consequences could be
"A really large storm could be a
planetary disaster," Kappenman says.
So what should be done?
No one knows yet - the report is meant
to spark that conversation. Baker is worried, though, that the odds
are stacked against that conversation really getting started.
As the NAS report notes, it is terribly
difficult to inspire people to prepare for a potential crisis that
has never happened before and may not happen for decades to come.
"It takes a lot of effort to educate
policy-makers, and that is especially true with these
low-frequency events," he says.
We should learn the lessons of hurricane
Katrina, though, and realize that "unlikely" doesn't mean "won't
happen". Especially when the stakes are so high.
The fact is, it could come in the next
three or four years - and with devastating effects.
"The Carrington event happened
during a mediocre, ho-hum solar cycle," Kintner says. "It came
out of nowhere, so we just don't know when something like that
is going to happen again."
Severe Space Weather Events -
Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts
comes to Earth
Severe space weather events often coincide with the appearance of
sunspots, which are indicators of particularly intense magnetic
fields at the sun's surface.
The chaotic motion of charged particles in the upper atmosphere of
the sun creates magnetic fields that writhe, twist and turn, and
occasionally snap and reconfigure themselves in what is known as a
"reconnection". These reconnection events are violent, and can fling
out billions of tonness of plasma in a "coronal mass ejection" (CME).
If flung towards the Earth, the plasma ball will accelerate as it
travels through space and its intense magnetic field will soon
interact with the planet's magnetic field, the magnetosphere.
Depending on the relative orientation of the two fields, several
things can happen. If the fields are oriented in the same direction,
they slip round one another.
In the worst case scenario, though, when
the field of a particularly energetic CME opposes the Earth's field,
things get much more dramatic.
"The Earth can't cope with the
plasma," says James Green, head of NASA's planetary division.
"The CME just opens up the magnetosphere like a can-opener, and
matter squirts in."
The sun's activity waxes and wanes every
11 years or so, with the appearance of sunspots following the same
cycle. This period isn't consistent, however. Sometimes the interval
between sunspot maxima is as short as nine years, other times as
long as 14 years.
At the moment the sun appears calm.
"We're in the equivalent of an
idyllic summer's day. The sun is quiet and benign, the quietest
it has been for 100 years," says Mike Hapgood, who chairs the
European Space Agency's space weather team, "but it could turn
the other way."
The next solar maximum is expected in