Could A Huge Solar Flare Knock Out Our Entire Grid?

Image: NASA

If Earth is struck by a large solar flare, some in the scientific community believe:

  • The planet will be hit with a widespread loss of power.
  • Air travel would be grounded.
  • Nuclear plants would be crippled and without sufficient back-up power, dozens could meltdown.
  • Satellites would be disabled, causing a serious loss of communication in all areas (military and civilian).
  • Food and medicine would be in short supply, setting up the potential for food riots within days of an outage.

The same scientists who believe that a large solar strike could lead to a very rapid societal breakdown say that steps to avoid the problem are available and at a relatively low cost to all of us. What is a “relatively low cost?” They estimate the amount of money needed to insulate the power grid (and ourselves) from trouble to be less than one dollar per American. But Congress said “no” to their proposal.

Is there really cause for concern?

Over the next fourteen months Earth will be on high alert for a huge burst of electromagnetic energy from the sun. This powerful pulse is known as a “Solar Maximum” – an event that could cause catastrophic damage to power grids and communications systems. The peak time for the next big flare is sometime between now and the end of 2013. This possibility has scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on alert. Tom Bogdan, the director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, is monitoring the situation as closely as possible.

“We now know how powerful space weather can be and how events that begin on the surface of the Sun can end up wreaking havoc here on Earth. This is why NOAA has a Space Weather Prediction Center — to forecast when space weather is coming our way, so we can avoid or mitigate damages.”

When Bogdan talks about “mitigating damages” he sounds calm, but the effects of a large, direct hit by a solar flare on our power grid would be substantial. One study from 2008 puts the damage estimate in the $1-2 trillion rage. (Hurricane Katrina was a $125 billion disaster.) Why is the cost so high? In the event of a direct hit from a “Solar Maximum,” much of our everyday lives would be altered or affected. Consider how many things are tied directly to electricity and satellites.

  • Power grid
  • Cell phones / GPS
  • Airline communications and guidance
  • Military

As pointed out by notable American physicist and co-founder of the string theory, Dr. Michio Kaku:

“Solar flares are like bullets fired into space, so far we’ve dodged the bullets.”

Dr. Kaku and NOAA’s Bogdan both point to “The Carrington Event,” a massive solar flare that hit Earth in 1859. This was long before electricity and telephones were part of everyday life. The only real form of national communication that spanned the country was the telegraph, and those systems were hit hard. NOAA reports what happened when that flare struck:

On a summer day in 1859, a silent surge of power from a major geomagnetic storm fueled by a solar eruption hit telegraph offices around the world. Some telegraph operators got electric shocks. Papers caught fire. And perhaps most amazing, many telegraph systems still sent and received signals even after operators disconnected batteries.

Could A Huge Solar Flare Knock Out Our Entire Grid?

Image: NASA

Could another flare the size of the “Carrington Event” be headed our way? If this is possible (or inevitable as Dr. Kaku believes), what would happen to our basic communication and power systems? Is there anything we can do to prepare to be hit by a “Solar Maximum?”

Dr. Kaku and other members of the American Physical Society (APS) think America should take a more aggressive stance on preparing for a major solar flare. And when it comes to protecting our power infrastructure, these thinkers believe a relatively small investment of $150 million to $300 million would guarantee that power would continue to flow across the country during such an event. Last year, a group of physicists from APS spoke to Congress and presented their pitch for the money. They were turned away.

Dr. Kaku appeared on a national radio show to discuss what might happen to our systems if we get a direct hit. His concerns and clarity on the subject are explained in language easily understood by even the most un-scientific among us.

The solar flares also produce a stunning celestial light show. Last summer, a very large flare gave the planet some spectacular images that NASA has shared.

(H/T: Zero Hedge)