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Space Weather

March 27, 2009
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What do you know about “Space Weather”, plasma balls, and the destruction of entire electrical grids?

It is not good.

If we are going to spend any money on infrastructure, we need to be taking care of our power grids, transformers, and using some alternative fuels.  If not, one of these days, nature is going to literally bomb some unfortunate areas of the country back into the stone age.

“…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 increases. “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 storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable….”

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