Sunday, June 10, 2012

The CME That You DON'T Want to See!

Is the one that smacks our planet broadside, sending power grids crashing down like so many tenpins, knocking out GPS satellites, and in general making life miserable for millions. As I noted in an earlier blog:

We narrowly dodged such a monster 6 months ago. But let's not fool ourselves, the day is coming - even as the Sun cranks up toward solar maximum- when we may not be so lucky and can't expect to continue to escape with a glancing blow or solar "wrist slap" -  as we have recently.

While it is true - as I noted in the previous blog - that flare energy (as well as that to power coronal mass ejections) is limited by the magneto-hydrodynamic potentials available on a star like the Sun, this is not really much consolation if and when a major energy burst whacks us straight on broadside with 1 million amp field-aligned induction currents that have the potential to take out all our power grids in a cascade of failures. Space weather aficionadoes call such maxi-catastrophes "Carrington Events" after the signature original event that transpired in September, 1859, which incepted geo-magnetic currents so large that for days telegraph operators could actually disconnect their equipment from battery power and send messages solely via the emergent "auroral currents".

In our own current situation, we've become a more vulnerable society by constructing mammoth, interlocked  power grids which can crash if the right combination of factors is imposed. While we do have high voltage transformers that connect directly to the ground (zero or earth potential) to neutralize power surges from lightning strikes, these don't afford any protection against powerful geo-magnetic currents that are induced in the earth and flow upward into the grid. Then such mammoth event, could spark calamity. Possibly no electric power for days, maybe longer ...over vast swatches of North America.

In addition, if a monster flare hurls a super stream of charged particles along with the CME we could expect adverse effects on all GPS positioning satellites. Bear in mind that GPS, besides providing directions for road users, allows synchronized cell phone conversations, as well as orchestrates air traffic not to mention 'date stamping' most financial transactions and guiding the dynamic positioning of the majority of deep sea oil drilling and gas operations.

Imagine then the same deep sea operations and financial transactions (say if you wish to redeem mutual fund shares) occurring when erroneous GPS info is received because a monster flare's radiation has knocked the timing off by even 1 millionth of a second (given the geo-spatial positioning measures accuracy to a few billionths of a second accuracy)? The resulting hundred fold or more time divergence would have catastrophic consequences.

Now, do we go off and blame the Sun for any such Carrington event calamity? Why would we? The Sun's magneto-physics hasn't basically changed over some billions of years. It still goes through a 22 -year polarity to polarity sunspot cycle and an 11 -year average spot maxima to maxima cycle. It's not the Sun that's changed but humans who have conspired to build these large interwoven power grids but have refused to do enough - politically, institutionally or economically to protect their investments.

A case in point is protection of our power grids from upward directed geo-magnetic currents. Many experts agree a simple solution would be to install large enough resistor -capacitor systems at critical locations (e.g. near power plants or major cities)  in order to sever any CME-driven upward field aligned current connection to the grid. (Recall from my basic physics blog, e;g.     that resistors act to limit current and also capacitors can do the same by collecting charge.)

The problem? Major U.S. power companies don't want to assume the cost for any voluntary installations, which could run $100,000 per transformer. Hence, the grid remains unprotected against the rare - but potentially calamitous - Carrington event CME that smacks us broadside. (As opposed to the glancing blow in January)

Even a bit of help could be available if we knew the direction of an oncoming powerful CME event and had some time to prepare. Right now such an entity exists: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which can measure the intensity and magnetic orientation of any CME that sweeps by it. The problem is that ACE is nearly on its last legs and a replacement monitor is needed, lest we become "blind" to the killer CME with our name on it.

Fortuitiously, a fully -ready space craft that can undertake ACE's duties exists. The problem? This Deep Space Climate Observatory (or DSCOVR) sits mothballed in storage at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt,  Maryland. It sits idle because the Obama administration's $47.3 million budget request to refurbish and launch DSCOVR was forthwith rejected by the Republican-controlled House.

So there it sits, and here we sit, on a planet becoming ever more vulnerable to the ultimate 'blowback' as the Sun's fury intensifies with the activity in this Solar Cycle 24. Think about all of that, and especially the Gooper House stupid austerity shtick, when the power grids, and GPS systems go down all around the country after the future nightmare CME strikes us full on!

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