In 2012, a massive wave of plasma erupted from the surface of the sun and lashed out into space at a million miles per hour. It missed us, Earth, by nine days. Had the timing been different, we would have had little warning, and the warning in those days would have been simple: shut everything off and pray.
Since then the White House has issued a National Space Weather Strategy, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has started requiring electric utility companies to develop safety measures to protect the grid in the event of a big solar storm. And now, thanks to researchers at the University of Michigan and Rice University, utilities—and anyone else—can receive more detailed and localized warnings about potential solar disruptions.
As of yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center is using a new model, or rather a framework combining several models, that can provide a kind of space weather map of the earth. Earlier models based mostly on remote observations of solar events could only predict their arrival at Earth within a three- to six-hour window, and couldn’t say how severe their effects would be or what regions would be hardest hit. The new model framework, using data from spacecraft positioned between Earth and the sun, will produce color-coded maps showing which regions on the planet are most and least likely to be affected, with as much as 45 minutes lead time.
Space weather, made up of a “wind” of charged particles and magnetic field fluctuations caused by the sun’s restless activity, can affect everything from the flight paths of aircraft (flights crossing the poles can lose radio contact and GPS navigation when the atmosphere is ionized by a solar flare) to rapid financial transactions in the stock market (they use GPS). The biggest potential impact, though, is on the energy infrastructure. When a solar storm nicknamed the “Carrington event” hit Earth in 1859, it blew up the only electricity-based technology around at the time—the telegraph system—generating so much electricity that some stations were able to send messages even after their power sources had been destroyed (just as moving magnets are used to generate electricity in power plants, moving magnetic fields from the sun can shoot massive currents through transmission lines that then destroy transformers, cutting off the downstream power grid).
Needless to say, our 21st-century civilization would grind to a halt if a similar event took us by surprise today. Everything from heating and cooling to food storage to health care—pretty much everything we do—would be affected, possibly for months or even years, depending on the severity of the storm. Costs to the United States alone could exceed an estimated $1 trillion (that’s one quarter of our total national budget). The problem is compounded by the fact that much of our power grid is interconnected over long distances, allowing instant widespread outages even when only one specific area is affected.
So what happens if the new model warns that a big storm is on the way? The plan is for utilities to simply switch off parts of the energy infrastructure before the storm hits, just as we unplug computers during lighting storms. This is where forecast accuracy is key, because shutting down an entire section of the power grid is costly, and utilities need to be able to weigh the risks. “You don’t want to shut off the electricity every month,” says UM’s Gábor Tóth, one of the developers of the new model. “On the other hand, you want to shut it off if it will be a problem.” That’s why the spatial element of the new model is so important—it will predict where solar storm affects are expected to occur down to a resolution of 350 square miles, about the size of Dallas, Texas, and with 60- to 70-percent accuracy, compared to 10-20 percent with previous models.
Since the Carrington event in 1859, there have been several significant storms, including one in 1989 that knocked out power in Quebec for nine hours. It could be decades or longer before the next “big one,” but it could be sooner too.
“The big difference between space weather and atmospheric weather,” says Daniel Welling, another of the new model’s developers, “is that nobody cares until everybody does.”
If you’d like to start keeping tabs on how solar activity is affecting Earth, you can check out the model’s daily weather maps here. Here are some for today: