Monday, February 10, 2014

Space Weather Impacts

Space Weather and the Electrical Grid

NASA summarized its 2009 study: "The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand. On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense—but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging 'cascade failures.'

To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm [which caused a blackout and grid damager in Canada and parts of the U.S.], and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with 'water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.'

'The concept of interdependency,"'the report notes, 'is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power--and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site.'


According to NASA, a geomagnetic storm of the size that struck in 1959 could cause "extensive social and economic disruptions...Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina..."

The Space Weather Threat

Luckily, severe space weather appears to be rare in terms of human time. That said, it can strike with limited warning. Result can include disruption of satellites and communication. Most importantly, space weather can disrupt the electrical grid. Space weather can have an impact on our advanced technologies which has a direct impact on our daily lives. Some experts believe a major space weather event could leave parts of the U.S. without grid power for years. Most observers agree such an event could cause the following effects for some period of time:

  •  Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
  •  Loss of perishable foods and medications 
  •  Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems 
  •  Loss of computer systems, telephone systems, and communications systems (including disruptions in airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services) 
  • Loss of public transportation systems
  •  Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines 
  •  Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power

After Space Weather

Remarkably, DHS has only one suggestion: "Throw out unsafe food: Throw away any food that has been exposed to a temperature of 40° F (4° C) or higher for 2 hours or more or that has an unusual odor, color, or texture. When in doubt, throw it out! Never taste food or rely on appearance or odor to determine its safety. Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they have been at room temperature too long, bacteria causing food-borne illnesses can start growing quickly. Some types of bacteria produce toxins that cannot be destroyed by cooking. If food in the freezer is colder than 40° F and has ice crystals on it, you can refreeze it. If you are not sure food is cold enough, take its temperature with a food thermometer."

During Space Weather

"Follow energy conservation measures to keep the use of electricity as low as possible, which can help power companies avoid imposing rolling blackouts during periods when the power grid is compromised. Follow the Emergency Alert System (EAS) instructions carefully. Disconnect electrical appliances if instructed to do so by local officials. Do not use the telephone unless absolutely necessary, during emergency situations keeping lines open for emergency personel can improve responce."

Preparing for Space Weather: Before It Hits

The information below is primarily about preparing for and coping with an event leading to a limited black out. But what DHS does not focus on is the issue of surviving a prolonged back out, a possible result of a major space weather event, as you can see here. "Survival" is being ready for a power outage that lasts not days, but weeks, months or even years. Learn more here. DHS recommends: "To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan. Other steps you can take include: Fill plastic containers with water and place them in the refrigerator and freezer if there's room. Leave about an inch of space inside each one, because water expands as it freezes. This chilled or frozen water will help keep food cold during a temporary power outage. Be aware that most medication that requires refrigeration can be kept in a closed refrigerator for several hours without a problem. If unsure, check with your physician or pharmacist. Keep your car tank at least half full because gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps. Know where the manual release lever of your electric garage door opener is located and how to operate it. Garage doors can be heavy, so know that you may need help to lift it. Keep a key to your house with you if you regularly use the garage as the primary means of entering your home, in case the garage door will not open. Keep extra batteries for your phone in a safe place or purchase a solar-powered or hand crank charger. These chargers are good emergency tools to keep your laptop and other small electronics working in the event of a power outage. If you own a car, purchase a car phone charger because you can charge your phone if you lose power at your home. If you have a traditional landline (non-broadband or VOIP) phone, keep at least one non-cordless receiver in your home because it will work even if you lose power. Prepare a family contact sheet. This should include at least one out-of-town contact that may be better able to reach family members in an emergency. Make back-up copies of important digital data and information, automatically if possible, or at least weekly."

Prepare for Deadly Space Weather

Dangerous space weather is an unstoppable and difficult-to-predict natural phenomenon. The most serious EMP threats come from man-made weapons. Either is capable of destroying electronics and disrupting electricity -- in the case of severe space weather, as seen elsewhere on this site, the juice could be out for years in some places. Preparing for these events involves many of the steps families take for "normal" emergencies, plus some extra ones. Surviving space weather and EMP is not just a topic for "preppers" -- as this site shows, the potential for a major disruption of the American life style is a real one. Space weather preparedness -- or at least space weather awareness -- makes sense for many people. How to prepare for space weather or EMP? The first step is to study the phenomena and survival strategies, which include many easy steps done at home. The books below are a start. Protect critical electronics. Use EMP coverings: ready-made bags and larger shielding you make beforehand using instructions from the books or other sources.→