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Tags: solar | storm | powergrids

A Looming Existential Solar Threat

view of the sun in outer space

Henry F. Cooper By Thursday, 27 May 2021 08:39 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Recent articles highlight an existential threat that we continue to ignore at our peril.

Nadia Drake writes in National Geographic that the sun is getting stormier, and that it’ll peak following a total solar eclipse in 2024, a major opportunity for observing solar activity to help unravel the sun’s mysteries while giving people on Earth a stunning show. But that storm also could pose an existential threat.

As National Geographic’s SCIENCE Executive Editor, she referred to an approximately 11-year cycle of solar activity expected to reach a maximum in 2025. An April 2024 total solar eclipse should provide a spectacular sight so close to solar maximum.

More importantly, Drake noted a storm of this magnitude could “crash power grids, knock out satellites, endanger astronauts in orbit, change planned flight routes, and render Earth’s upper atmosphere impenetrable to ground-based communication systems.” Sunspots can unleash such massive explosions, solar flares that sometimes sling volleys of radiation and charged particles into space called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.

Drake noted a strong CME colliding with Earth could cause a geomagnetic storm like the 1859 Carrington Event that disrupted telegraphs, shocked operators at their controls, and lit the skies with auroras visible in the Caribbean. That storm today would crash power grids, knock out satellites, endanger astronauts in orbit and airflight controls, and render the upper atmosphere impenetrable to ground-based communications.

She also noted weaker “space weather” eruptions are also dangerous, as illustrated when the March 12, 1989 CME, a fraction the strength of the Carrington event. It fried the power grid throughout Quebec and trapped people in elevators and tunnels. Multiple satellites temporarily went dark or had trouble maintaining altitude, and sensors tripped aboard the space shuttle Discovery — which had launched earlier that day.

There were earlier more potentially consequential solar storms — though less so than another Carrington event. Dana A. Goward wrote in the May 14 Nextgov that we were “Racing the Sun to Protect America,” based on lessons we should have learned from a major solar storm a century ago, referred to as the “New York Railroad Solar Storm of 1921,” because it destroyed the New York office and switching system.

Random telegraph and telephone offices, and others, suddenly burst into flames. Fuses were blown, equipment damaged, connections severed. Undersea telegraph cable service was interrupted. Aurora, “the northern lights,” appeared in Pasadena, California. Boston’s night sky was so bright you could read a newspaper.

Goward also noted a “near miss” in 2012, when a powerful CME passed through the Earth’s orbit. If it had happened several days earlier, he said NASA indicated “we would still be picking up the pieces.”

He also quoted Dr. Scott McIntosh — deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one of the nation’s leading authorities on solar activity, who has warned the next decade or so will be particularly dangerous, and that the chance of a Carrington-level CME was 4%-12% in this decade.

Goward, President of The Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, focused on the vulnerability of the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system. As he noted, “Strong solar storms can charge the atmosphere and prevent signals from getting through for days. The strongest can damage or even destroy satellites.”

He observed that losing GPS service for several days could cost billions of dollars and incalculably damage America. Transportation, telecommunications, consumer financial systems and other critical functions would be crippled — the entire economy would be in disarray.

To be sure, losing GPS would be very consequential — does anyone still carry a road map in their glove compartment on road trips — or even around town? The pertinence of this question depends on whether our automobiles and other related essential infrastructure remain viable to support our interest in traveling.

What about our food supply and the just-in-time delivery of vital life-enabling goods without electricity? What happens to the viability of hospitals and their life support, including essential water and wastewater critical infrastructure? Or essential communications to support emergency management or other key operations?

And on-and-on ... regarding critical civil infrastructure that depends on the electric power grid, which is vulnerable to a major solar storm, which one day will occur. We continue to ignore this threat at our peril.

Moreover, maintaining GPS is not our only concern. And such a major solar storm is not our greatest threat — though there is nothing we can do to avoid it if nature sends one our way. But our leaders are simply irresponsible in permitting this condition to continue, since we have long known how to address it.

For example, I recently discussed that the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack was a wakeup call on our failure to protect our critical infrastructure against a variety of threats. Most important in my view is failure to address the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat that all our key adversaries — Russia, China, North Korea and Iran — include in their military doctrine as the most horrific cyberattack strategy.

If we address that existential threat, it will take care of the solar storm CME threat, but the converse is not true.

We long ago should have followed well-known recommendations of the non-partisan, technically qualified, Congressional EMP Commission. See its comprehensive reports, including a warning that, today, most Americans could die within months after either threat due to starvation, disease and societal collapse.

As discussed in my April 30, 2021 Newsmax article, we should be addressing this issue “from the bottom-up” at the local and state level, especially given the inept Washington leadership that is failing its Constitutional duty “to provide for the common defense.”

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, writing in The Hill about these issues reinforced my views in his excellent May 21, 2021 article, “When will America protect itself against EMP, cyber and ransomware attacks?”

He also advocates a bottom-up approach, as taken by leaders in York County, S.C., and particularly Rock Hill, the fourth largest S.C., city and a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., — home of Duke Energy Corporate Headquarters. Duke Engineers have partnered with the Lake Wylie Pilot Study from its beginning over five years ago.

This bottom-up approach, also supported by South Carolina’s adjutant general, could for a modest investment demonstrate and export its lessons-learned throughout South and North Carolina and beyond.

The question is, “Will the “powers that be” provide the resources to make it happen?”

Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Read Ambassador Cooper's Reports — More Here.

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Such a major solar storm is not our greatest threat — though there is nothing we can do to avoid it if nature sends one our way. But our leaders are simply irresponsible in permitting this condition to continue, since we have long known how to address it.
solar, storm, powergrids
Thursday, 27 May 2021 08:39 AM
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