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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Scary Stories for Halloween

The Great Disruption is coming — are you frightened yet?

Image 1 of 2
Something is coming to get you.
Image Credit: First photo: Karyn Patno
Something is coming to get you.
Image Credit: First photo: Karyn Patno
This photo shows a solar storm photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011. According to NASA, this event was categorized as a minor radiation storm.
Image Credit: Second photo: NASA

What’s scary for a green builder? Mold in the crawl space?

Naw — mold is a routine problem. What’s really scary is the end of the world as we know it.

A decade or two ago, the end of the world as we know it was a matter of concern for a few nutty survivalists in Idaho. Now it is a matter of discussion at academic conferences.

Several mechanisms have been proposed for the coming economic collapse. Some are based on New Age nonsense, while others are based on hard science. If you’re a pessimist, you can pick from a long list of possible doomsday mechanisms:

  • Ancient Mayan predictions of impending doom;
  • Peak oil;
  • Global climate change;
  • World-wide food shortages;
  • Military conflicts caused by water shortages;
  • Rising sea levels;
  • Ecological degradation caused by deforestation;
  • Widespread resource shortages caused by overpopulation;
  • The collapse of the world financial system due to our sudden realization that dollars and euros are just cheap pieces of paper.

Most of the items on the list are perfectly capable of turning the world upside-down. As Robert Frost wrote,

        Some say the world will end in fire,

        Some say in ice.

        From what I’ve tasted of desire

        I hold with those who favor fire.

        But if it had to perish twice,

        I think I know enough of hate

        To know that for destruction ice

        Is also great

        And would suffice.

Solar storms ahead

Clearly, Frost was talking about emotional states rather than the literal end of the world. But in a pinch, his perception can be stretched from the metaphorical back to the literal. Although many of us may assume we know what’s going to cause the coming Great Disruption, Frost was right: other doomsday mechanisms are “also great and would suffice.” In today’s blog, I’m going to discuss a potential apple-cart-upsetter that is missing from most lists: a crash of the electrical grid caused by magnetic storms on the sun.

I learned of this possibility in an episode of a syndicated Canadian program, Spark Radio. Sonya Buyting’s report, “The Future’s So Bright,” was broadcast on October 8, 2011.

A solar storm — sometimes called a “coronal mass ejection” — produces a strong magnetic pulse that sends plasma earthward. Routine solar storms cause beautiful visual effects (aurora borealis and aurora australis) in the skies over polar regions; solar storms can also disturb the earth’s magnetic field.

In her report, Buyting explains that a magnetic storm on the surface of the sun could be strong enough to wipe out our entire electrical infrastructure in one fell swoop. Such a storm could also take out the Internet, cause radio blackouts that confuse aircraft, render satellite systems inoperable, wreak havoc on GPS devices, and induce electrical currents in gas pipelines.

The equipment burst into flames

Solar storms are cyclical; they tend to peak every 11 years. The next solar maximum is expected in the spring of 2013. During the past few years, solar storm activity has been at an unusually low level. To some observers, this indicates that we may soon be facing trouble — especially since extremely strong solar-storm events tend to occur every 50 to 100 years. As Buyting points out, “We’re due.”

Back in 1859, the sun was also coming out of another abnormally quiet period. When sun-storm activity resumed that year, it resumed with a vengeance. In fact, the two most intense solar storms on record both occurred in 1859. According to Joe Kunches, a space scientist at NASA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, “Some people worry that because the sun has lapsed into this state of relative inactivity again, perhaps it means that it is storing up something big for us.”

Stuart Clark, an astrophysicist at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, wrote a book about the 1859 solar storms, The Sun Kings. Clark explains that the effect of these 1859 solar storms on telegraph wires was intense. “Electricity surged through the wires. Operators in the offices were stunned unconscious. The offices themselves and the equipment burst into flames, sparks flew, and at the same time every compass went haywire and spun uselessly.”

All hell could break loose

What would happen if the earth were struck again with the effects of a solar storm of the same magnitude as the storms of 1859? Buyting reports, “All hell could break loose. Seriously. NASA calls it the nightmare scenario.”

In 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences commissioned a report to determine the economic impacts that could be expected in the event of an 1859-scale solar storm. The chairman of the committee that prepared that report was Daniel Baker, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. According to Baker, “The concern would be that the power grid over a very broad continental-scale region could be out for weeks, months, or possibly even years, and the economic impact would run to the order of one to two trillion U.S. dollars. You start to lose the ability to pump fuel, to lose the ability to have communications, to lose refrigeration. You will have all kinds of consequences that start to propagate through society in a very alarming way. And if you now imagine large urban areas in the United States or in North America being without power for weeks or months, the consequences across the financial system, across the transportation system, across all of the things we rely on, would be vast.”

If you are an optimist, you probably think that it’s highly unlikely that a solar storm could hurt the power grid. However, here’s some food for thought: a relatively minor solar storm in 1989 — far smaller than the powerful magnetic storms of 1859 — took down the power grid in Quebec and left six million people without power for several hours.

Are you feeling lucky?

Buyting ended her report by noting that many question marks remain. “It’s all a big maybe. Chances are the next solar maximum will be business as usual. But it might not be.”

Of course, even if we dodge the solar-storm bullet in 2013, we won’t be out of the woods quite yet, because of all the other bullets — including climate change, peak oil, food shortages, and water shortages — that we still have to dodge in the years ahead. Happy Halloween!

Last week’s blog: “Martin’s 10 Rules of Lighting.”

5 Comments

  1. Chris Brown | | #1

    Your Halloween story
    Gee Martin, here I am sitting around worrying about energy consumption vs. production; geo-political pressures regarding the world's energy reserves; impending code improvements; American consumers being largely ignorant of and/or disinterested in energy efficiency in their homes; reducing carbon footprints and whether or not my house might get egged Monday night!
    What was I thinking?

  2. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #2

    Silver lining...
    As the grid is bursting into flames, look skyward - the potential for viewing once-in-a-lifetime aurora borealis will be peaking.

    Speaking of peaking, for anyone interested in learning more about one of the wolves that is actualy in the yard, ASPO-USA has an upcoming conference "Truth in Energy" in Washington D.C. Nov. 2-5.

    The line-up of speakers for this year's conference is impressive and there's even an open letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, inviting him to provide some answers to some pertinent questions.

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Lucas
    Lucas,
    You're right about the aurora borealis. According to Sonya Buyting of Spark Radio, "There are thousands of eyewitness reports from people who witnessed a hell of a dazzling aurora borealis display [in 1859]. Even down in the tropics, the sky was blood red. People thought massive fires were burning nearby, which was not the case."

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #4

    What?! No interwebs?
    Thanks, Martin. I was starting to feel a bit too complacent because here it is 2011, and we've already survived two scheduled Raptures just this year. Now, on top of peak oil, the Middle East troubles, and the 2012 end-of-the-world predictions, I've got to start figuring out how I'm going to blog without the internet. Or a computer. Or lights. Maybe even without a house.

    Happy Halloween to you, too!

  5. David Meiland | | #5

    Hopefully
    if that happens, it won't be during the World Series or the NFL playoffs. That would suck.

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