Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Could a BIG solar storm destroy the Internet as we know it?

The New York Times science page has an article about solar storms by Kenneth Chang, “Forecast: Chance of Havoc”.  Online the title is “Sun Storm Forecast: Tiny Chance of Havoc”, link here
The article summarizes the risks to the planet’s power grid and technologically dependent society form a big solar storm. 

It's also important to note that space weather, unlike climate change, is not affected by human activity.  

There is a difference between a “solar flare”, which moves at the speed of light and does little harm, and the subsequent “coronal mass ejection”, which takes a couple days to reach Earth and which, if big enough, can short out power grid circuits and transformers. A solar flare is also much less severe than a gamma ray burst, which would come from a supernova hundreds or thousands of light years away, without warning; but such bursts probably happen only once every 500 million years or so.   Mild solar flares and CME's are common.  Big ones may be more common than we think, but a vast majority completely miss Earth.  Still, rare destructive and unpreventable incidents do happen. 

There would exist a possibility that the power industry knows that a CME is coming and could shut down (black out) parts of the grid temporarily (for about a day) to protect the grid.

If there really was a big direct hit from a “Carrington-sized” event (as in 1859) and the grid was not properly safeguarded, estimates for repair time for the power grid for most affected areas (possibly all of the US) range from a week to months.

The risk increases somewhat during periods of high sunspot activity. The Sun’s northern hemisphere has peaked, but the southern hemisphere is expected to peak in the fall of 2013.

If there were prolonged disruptions of Internet service providers, there could be serious questions about whether old accounts could be kept or restored, or whether business models for social media and web hosting could continue as they do now.

EEE Spectrum (from Duluth MN) examines a CME from mid 2012:

There’s a good question as to how people would cope or handle the challenge of “radical hospitality” if power were out for a large portion of the country for many weeks or months.
On my issues blog, I’ve documented the extent of disruption that I personally saw from two local tornado strikes, and Hurricane Sandy.  Even Sandy seems small compared to what a severe solar storm could do. 
Is there a homeland security issue in possibly requiring transformers or power station circuits to be more robust?
The same considerations (even more so) could apply to an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack from a terrorist, which could be local or widespread if resulting from a high altitude blast.  The recent bellicose behavior of North Korea is not comforting.  

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