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Will solar flares destroy modern civilization? Nah

David Wallace has been a longtime member of the PES Transformers Committee, whose job is to develop and update standards and guidelines for electrical transformers and associated components used within electric power systems around the world. He’s currently a professor of electrical engineering – and manager of the High Voltage Laboratory – at Mississippi State University. Dr. Wallace talks with EarthSky’s founder Deborah Byrd about the many studies done – and steps taken – to protect Earth’s power grids in the event of large solar flares and accompanying geomagnetic storms. Will these storms destroy modern civilization? No. Watch the video above for a discussion, or read the transcript below. Edits in the transcript by EarthSky.

Will solar flares destroy modern civilization?

Deborah Byrd: The Carrington Event happened in 1859. In your article in The Conversation, the headline said you were going to explain how a big solar storm – and I’m talking about one bigger than those we’ve been having for the past couple of weeks – could take down the power grid and the internet. And I can’t tell you how many times we hear those words from people, that a big solar storm is going to take down the internet. And it’s going to take down the power grids.

So let’s talk about the magnitude of that, and about whether it would be a permanent situation, or would the power grids and internet come back fairly quickly? Can you tell us about that? Let me just read you one of the questions that we got about this in this past week. This is a question from an EarthSky reader:

The sun will probably continue. to increase activity into the next year, and the sun could well throw out a Carrington event level CME [that’s a coronal mass ejection, it’s a chunk of material from the sun], and if it were to hit the Earth directly, it would have dire consequences. Our power grids and internet can be gone in a flash

Do you have a comment about that question?

David Wallace: Right. Now, there are effects that will come from large scale CMEs, large scale geomagnetic storms. A G5 geomagnetic storm is the highest they go. The Carrington event caused a G5 geomagnetic storm. The one that we had last week was a G5.

But there’s a difference from the time of the Carrington event and to now. Even going back to the 1920s and 1999, we’ve had storms hit. We had the 1920s New York storm [the most intense geomagnetic storm of the 20th century], where it did the same thing. It ignited power or telegraph cables in buildings in New York and in Russia, caught them on fire. And in 1989, we had the Quebec storm. It actually shut down power in Quebec.

But it’s different today. We understand geomagnetically induced currents that come from storms like this. If you think of how electricity is generated … you take a magnet, a horseshoe magnet, you pass a wire through the magnet, it induces a current through the wire. Well, the transmission lines act as the wires. The Earth and magnetic field is surrounding them. When a CME hits, it causes that magnetic field to fluctuate up and down.

That’s the same thing as passing the cable back and forth through the magnet. So it induces currents on the power lines, which feeds through the transformers and the other electrical apparatus.

In the old days, we really didn’t have the ability to monitor when a big CME was fixing to hit.

Today, NASA has a fleet of sun-observing satellites. We’ve got a very good monitoring system watching the sun telling us, okay, you have a storm fixing to come in. With this advanced notice, the electrical utilities have the ability to do what’s called load shedding. [Grid operators can] lessen the loads on the system so that when you do get these overcurrents coming through your cables, it does not overload the transformers because they’ve already got less load on them. And they can handle that extra load coming into them.

Now it does do damage on small systems. You may have outages and substations that may not have enough protection, and they may go out. But it’s something that’s relatively quickly fixed.

Now the communications – your internet and everything else – this is coming from your satellites [editor’s note: as of May 2024 there are 3,135 communications satellites in Earth orbit]. And when these storms hit, they will affect the satellites.

Now this past storm, it affected the GPS of the tractors and farmlands, and they had a few issues where the tractors didn’t receive the GPS, and they couldn’t plow the field.

Well, there’s really not much we can do on that right now. There are ways that they can harden the satellites in order to give better protection to ensure a more continuous broadcast of signal. On Earth, we have the same thing where you have antennas for radios. You may get the power flowing through them, standing waves coming down, creating havoc on that.

But it would be short-lived. As the storm goes away, your signals come back. I’ve actually had communications with a [ham] radio operator saying that [the signal] would randomly come on and off. And it was due to the storm coming in. But it’s not long term.

So we have the ability to detect and prepare now.

Graphic illustrated spacecraft between us and the sun.
NASA’s fleet of sun-observing spacecraft, as of January 24, 2024. These spacecraft work together to warn industries – such as the electrical power industry and the communications industry – about solar flares incoming coronal mass ejections. Image via NASA Heliophysics Missions.

Preparations in the electrical power industry

Deborah Byrd: Right. And so what I’m hearing you say is that, yes, events do occur. Has any event occurred that you know of that was as strong as the Carrington event?

David Wallace: Not as strong as the Carrington. As far as I know, the closest that I would really say was the 1920s New York Storm. That one was relatively huge and it did a lot of damage. But since then, the size of the Carrington, no.

Deborah Byrd: Not as strong as the Carrington Event, okay. And so, but what you’re saying is that technology has advanced, and we do have this fleet of sun observing spacecraft, looking at the sun constantly and monitoring what’s going on with the sun.

So if we know that a solar storm has occurred and that a big CME is coming, we have the ability to do something about it in the way that we didn’t when the story about the Carrington event first started coming out …

David Wallace: Yes.

Deborah Byrd: … Which, you know, in my memory, it was maybe 20 years ago, 25 years ago, that people started talking about the Carrington event and what might happen there.

But, since then, we have some things now that we didn’t have then, like those sun-observing spacecraft. And didn’t you tell me that there were lots of studies that have been done on what to do about this?

David Wallace: Yes. So one of the big things, my background before I became a professor, I spent almost 30 years in the electrical industry, transformer substations. And during this time, I’m a member of what we call the transformer committee, which writes the standards, which regulates how transformers are built, how you design substations, how you set them up.

And there has been a very big push for how do we handle geomagnetically induced currents? How do we handle solar storms? What do we do to prepare for them?

So that is a push that’s going not just in North America, but worldwide. So IEEE here, IEC in Europe. Everybody is looking at this.

And we’re getting better at how we can control the load flow, how the electricity is divided up on the grid. So if we need to shed it to more one area that would be less affected, we can do this. And that way you’re lessening the chance of overvoltages, overcurrents shutting down the system.

And even inside the electrical components, our transformers, we are hardening them in there. We’re coming up with better designs, better materials that can handle the higher loads without the chance of breakdown like you would have in the old days.

So there’s a lot of work going on to protect us against these types of events.

Solar storms bigger than Carrington?

Deborah Byrd: We had the biggest flare of Solar Cycle 25 so far on May 14. And that was an X8. So how big was the Carrington event flare? Do you happen to know how big it was?

David Wallace: Yes. I believe that the Carrington was all the way up to X10. I would have to go back and confirm. I know on the geomagnetic storm scale, they called it a G5, which is as high as it goes.

Deborah Byrd: So what you’re saying is just that, you know, with this awareness [of events like the Carrington Event] has come more boosting up of our power systems. People of goodwill have been trying to work to protect us from solar storms.

And so the big fear that’s going around the internet of solar storms is unwarranted. Is that what you’re saying?

David Wallace: Right. Right. Yes, it’s not the zombie apocalypse.

Yes, there may be disruptions. You may have a few days where you can’t get on your cell phone and you can’t get on the internet, which may be a good thing.

But yes, there will be disruptions, but they’re not going to be long-term, apocalyptic destruction of the world type scenarios.

We can handle it, we can adjust for it, and we can go forward.

Deborah Byrd: And how long are we talking about? Are we talking about that we might have outages on the scale of days, weeks, months?

David Wallace: Yeah, worst case scenario, okay, we get too much of an overload, you shut down a transformer, you would be out for probably a week or so because they’d have to take the substation, pull the transformers out, relocate a new one, bring new ones in, set them up.

But even during this time, they may be able to – and this is the nice thing about the new, what we call smart grid – they’re able to isolate it, the dead sections and reroute the power around it. So they can compensate for these outages and still provide power.

So you’ll be out, but nowhere near as long as a month or timescales like that.

When you’re talking for the long term, you look at hurricanes and storms like that to where they blow down the power poles. Okay, now you’ve got problems, because you have to go back and reconstruct.

On [solar storms], you’re taking out the electronics, which is easily replaced and put back in and you’re up and going.

Deborah Byrd: That’s interesting. Okay. So we’re not going to go back to the 17th century, as one of our commenters said, over the past week. He said he’d been storing up food for all this time and he welcomes going back to the 17th century.

David Wallace: No. No. We won’t have that problem.

I grew up on a farm where we were fully self -sufficient back in the 70s. And yes, it was a fun time, but I do like having the convenience of today, not going out milking the cows and growing the garden.

Deborah Byrd: Yeah, I’m in Austin, Texas. We didn’t have power here for four days during a freak snowstorm. And that was that’s pretty rough. Four days without power.

David Wallace: Yeah, the 2021 storm. That one was I call the perfect storm. Everything fell into place at the right moment to create this havoc. I wrote a article on that as well: what led up to the downfall of the grid in Texas. And it was a very interesting story. But that was just the perfect storm, you know, once in a lifetime type deal.

Deborah Byrd: Yes. Hopefully. And, even during that storm … well, I live close to the downtown area and I could look across my totally dark neighborhood, and the downtown buildings were all lit up. So they had some kind of emergency power system.

David Wallace: Yes. They have the emergency backup systems on site that would run and supply the power.

Deborah Byrd: Right, my daughter never lost power because she’s next to a bunch of city buildings. And so she had power the whole time.

David Wallace: Yep. So if you’re close to the places with the critical infrastructure, you’re pretty much guaranteed you’ll have power. If you live out in the sticks, as we call it, you’re pretty much on your own.

Safe, and getting safer

Deborah Byrd: So the Carrington Event was 1859. Have there been any other events that happened in Earth’s history that were comparable or bigger?

David Wallace: If you go way, way back, before we had any knowledge of solar storms, any recording capability, there was the Miyake Event, I think 1773. And the way we know about this is actually from looking at carbon dating inside tree rings. And according to the data pulled from this, it was larger than the Carrington event.

But like I said, there was no recording capability. You didn’t have [people] running around that could be affected by the electricity. But it did show that the solar storm was a humongous magnitude greater than the Carrington.

Deborah Byrd: So if another humongous storm came along, is it the same situation that we just talked about regarding the electronics?

David Wallace: Same situation. As long as we get prepared, we get the notices coming, we can prepare the systems to minimize the damage and outages that can occur.

Deborah Byrd: Wow, thank you so much for joining us. We get so many comments about this and people are so terrified of solar flares. And I’ve been hearing for decades that they’re working on the problem. And so they are.

David Wallace: Yes. And we actually have guest speakers, the professionals in the industry, they come and give lectures at our meetings telling us, you know, the latest, greatest what’s coming up.

So it is a ongoing system where they’re really focusing on this and preparing for it.

Deborah Byrd: So you’re saying we’re safe now, though we might have some inconveniences or we might have some temporary outages, but things are getting even safer.

David Wallace: Yes.

Yes, we’re on the right path.

Deborah Byrd: I’m so happy to hear that. Thank you so much, David. I really appreciate it. And I want to thank you, David Wallace, who is an electrical engineer at Mississippi State University. And I also hope those of you who are watching will join us on Mondays at 12:15 Central for our weekly livestream. And, David, maybe we can have you back on again sometime to talk about geomagnetic storms and power grids. Thank you so much.

David Wallace: Certainly. Anytime.

Bottom line: David Wallace of Mississippi State University talks to Deborah Byrd about solar flares and what kind of impact a big storm from the sun would have on Earth today.

Stay up-to-date on solar flares and geomagnetic storms: Read EarthSky’s daily sun news

Read more from Scientific American: Should you really worry about solar flares?

May 19, 2024
Human World

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