Magazine article Risk Management

SPACE Storms: Solar Explosions Can Wreak Havoc on Earth

Magazine article Risk Management

SPACE Storms: Solar Explosions Can Wreak Havoc on Earth

Article excerpt

Solar Explosions Can Wreak Havoc on Earth

Seen from a distance, our sun appears calm, a serene source of light and warmth. In reality, it is an explosive mass that trigger's solar wind and space weather that can lead to disruptions with devastating consequences here on Earth.

An orange disk melting into the horizon is a deceptively serene image. In reality, our sun is a boiling, churning ball of gas and plasma. And parts of its tumultuous atmosphere are constantly blown into space. Collectively, eruptions from the Sun, disturbances in the solar wind and the twisting and stretching of the Earth's magnetosphere are referred to as space weather. As we evolve into a technologically dependent society, its direct impact on our earthly activities is becoming more apparent.

Extreme weather events on Earth are not the only phenomena that can wreak havoc with the power grid, disrupt communications systems and cause widespread blackouts. Storms in space--originating on the Sun, ninety-three million miles away--can have the same financial impact as a hurricane or an earthquake, resulting in losses of tens of billions of dollars. Several industries are directly impacted by space storms, including electric utilities, satellite operations, telecommunications, transportation, navigation, broadcasting, oil and gas and geophysical surveying.

With major disturbances underweight this fall, risk managers need to be aware of the dangers.

Stormy Weather

The space weather we are concerned with starts at the Sun, where the million-degree atmosphere causes gases to expand into space as a steady solar wind. Punctuating these winds are intermittent storms. Their activity is expected to reach its eleven-year peak in 2001, with the largest number of storms in the following years.

The Sun's reactive nature becomes a terrestrial problem when the solar wind strikes the earth's magnetosphere at speeds of two million miles per hour. Energy from this impact is stored in the magnetosphere, and can cause geomagnetic storms. Although the "magnetic" center of the earth accounts for most of its steady geomagnetic field, the uppermost layers of the earth's atmosphere, along with trapped particles in the Van Allen radiation belts, trigger its volatility. Events on the Sun and in the magnetosphere can cause changes in the electrical and chemical properties of the atmosphere, the ozone layer and high-altitude temperatures and wind patterns. These changes result in such seemingly benign and vivid phenomena as auroras, but also radio and television static, power blackouts, navigation problems for ships and airplanes, damage to satellites and spacecraft, massive power outages and even corrosion to long-distance pipelines.

The northern United States and Canada are highly vulnerable to the impact of these occurrences, both by virtue of their location relative to the earth's magnetic pole and because of their technological sophistication. Over the past ten years, major blackouts have occurred, satellites have been damaged and communications systems have failed. The only good news is that the prediction of the occurrence of these storms is improving through the use of new instruments, computer models and satellite technology.

According to John Kappenman, former director of transmission power engineering at Minnesota Power, "A large space storm in March 1989 made currents on the ground that caused a failure in the Hydro-Quebec electric power system. This prevented six million people in Canada and the United States from having electricity for over nine hours. The impact of this particular storm was simultaneously felt over the entire North American continent, with most of Hydro Quebec's neighboring systems in the United States coming uncomfortably close to experiencing the same sort of voltage collapse and cascading outage scenario." (IEEE Power Engineering Review, May 1996)

Space storms in September 1989 and October 1991 reminded utilities around the world that geomagnetic disturbances can hamper reliable operation. …

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