Friday, January 20, 2023

A Threat To U.S. Power Grids? Solar X-Ray Flares Presage Active Solar Cycle 25 And Potential Earlier CMEs As Well As Aurora


                                     Solar flare x-ray class eruption from 2 weeks ago.

In just the past 2 weeks, three X-class solar flares — the strongest bracket on the scale — have erupted on the sun’s surface. Solar flares are immensely energetic eruptions arising from magnetically unstable regions on the solar surface, usually with one magnetic polarity region intruding dramatically into another (opposite) polarity region, e.g.

              Magnetic polarity intrusion resulting in magnetically unstable region in Nov. 1980

 The instability results in a range of energies associated with the eruption, from visual to x-ray and gamma ray.  These solar explosions travel at the speed of light and can affect radio communications.  The most pernicious effect of such powerful flares is probably the coronal mass ejection or CME.

Such a major solar energy burst has the potential to whack us straight 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.

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.  The energy maximum erupting itself is still limited by the amount of magnetic free energy in the CME-releasing region. So this is comforting to know, but doesn't release us from trying for forecast when such impacting events could affect us. Hence, the urgent need for accurate space weather forecasts.

The current sudden flare-up of activity may also be a sign that experts grossly underestimated how busy Solar Cycle 25 — the current iteration of the sun’s magnetic rhythm — will be. The image below shows the solar cycles in the current relative time frame, up to 2026:

At “solar maximum,” which is estimated to occur in July 2025 (give or take 3 months), NASA and NOAA forecasters are anticipating about 115 sunspots per month. But a pair of researchers — Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Bob Leamon, a researcher at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and NASA Goddard — predict twice as many. So far, current trends are on pace for their prediction, which will include more frequent auroral displays.

A few bold solar physicists have deviated from the consensus expectations, calling instead for a spike of robust storminess on the Sun in the years ahead. This new flurry from 10 days ago shows those outliers may wind up being right.

The number of flares and CMEs that occur is proportional to the number of sunspots on the solar disk. Those sunspots are most common at the peak of each 11-year “solar cycle,” which solar physicists have confirmed is actually a subset of several overlapping cycles on both shorter and longer time frames.  In either case, the number of sunspots, and subsequently flares and CMEs, will increase over the coming two-plus years. It’s a stark change and it almost begs for superior forecasting efforts to avert a CME calamity with our vulnerable power grids.

See Also:

New Solar Research Confirms Why Delta Sunspots Are More Flare Worthy Than Other Magnetic Classes 


Ensemble Modeling of Coronal Mass Ejections - A Superior Means Of Prediction? The Jury Is Still Out 


No comments: