Magazine article National Defense

Catastrophic Solar Flare Scenario Touches off Stormy Debate

Magazine article National Defense

Catastrophic Solar Flare Scenario Touches off Stormy Debate

Article excerpt

* Energy from sotar flares can harm electrical grids on Earth, but a new study says the sun probably won't plunge the United States into the Dark Ages, as some theorists have said.

Working on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, scientists with JASON, a government advisory group, recently published a report on the vulnerability of the nation's electrical grid to solar flares. "Impacts of Severe Space Weather on the Electric Grid" concludes that while energy blasts from the sun, called coronal mass ejections, can damage transmission lines, it's unlikely the entire grid could be brought down.

The Secrecy News Blog, published by the Federation of American Scientists, reported that DHS, which requested the JASON study, refused to make it publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act FAS independently obtained a copy of the report.

The sun is on the upswing of an 11-year cycle called solar maximum, which is ripe for solar flares. Solar-generated electromagnetic pulses have been a matter of concern in the run-up to May 2013, when the sun is expected to be most volatile.

"Concerns about the vulnerabilities of technical infrastructure to space weather have been growing since the sun entered the early stages of the current sunspot cycle in 2009, increasing prospects for severe solar storms," the report reads. "The primary issue is not whether these storms will occur but the risks they pose to power grids, satellite communications and GPS."

Government officials and scientists who study the sun are concerned that not enough is known about the effects of solar energy on power transmission equipment The JASON report calls attention to the need for better protections against electromagnetic pulses that result from solar flares, but stops short of supporting a popular theory that the sun's energy could spell doom for America.

John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants, is convinced that a large solar storm could strain the U.S. electrical grid to the point of collapse. That theory was the centerpiece of several days of exercises in Washington, D.C., in November involving industry, government, researchers and defense officials aimed at parsing out what the impact and aftermath of a massive solar storm would look like.

Solar storms have caused hourslong disruptions in high-frequency radio communications and GPS satellites in the recent past but no one is quite sure how a massive storm would affect power generation and transmission in the United States. …

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