back to article NASA: Earth JUST dodged comms-killing SOLAR BLAST in 2012

A new analysis of data from NASA's Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) by Chinese and Berkeley helioboffins shows that a July 2012 solar storm of unprecedented size would have wiped out global electronic systems if it had occurred just nine days earlier. "Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big …

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Interesting Science Fiction Take on this

Flare by Roger Zelazny and Thomas T. Thomas

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Re: Interesting Science Fiction Take on this

A good read but, as with much SF, mostly for its insight into human relationships.

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Re: Interesting Science Fiction Take on this

Hopefully the books are better than what Hollywood releases then, as the only thing they tell us about human relationships is to avoid them.

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Alert

@Steve Knox - Re: Interesting Science Fiction Take on this

Better than "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven that I was thinking of...

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Mushroom

Missed

By that much!

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Alert

Whoa!

Bleeding pigs, that was close!

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Unhappy

Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

Then it's not.

While I don't think it's time to withdraw to a bunker in Montana I do think some (low key) contingency planning about this would be a good idea before planet Earth gets one of these pointed right at it.

Planning how to segment power grids, a few spare big transformers (for the electric arc furnaces needed to make more big transformers), backup to GPS ( not satellite based).

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

Sure, these things are necessary.

No, they're never going to get done.

Politicians are only concerned with building new infrastructure (when they get off their asses to do anything at all, that is.) That's what makes for good publicity and better chances of getting elected.

Reinforcing existing infrastructure is nowhere near as glamorous as building new, and if you're lucky you can hold it together just long enough for it to fall apart on your successor's watch. (Remember, even if it breaks three days after he takes office, it's still entirely his fault.)

And most frustratingly, in order to get things fixed, you need to raise public awareness. But if you do manage to stave off disaster, the ungrateful electorate will claim that there never was a threat in the first place, and that it was all a "hoax". (Prime example: Y2K IT fixes.)

BTW, how do you intend to create a non-satellite GPS that doesn’t cost umpteen trillions to implement and billions every year to run?

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

"backup to GPS ( not satellite based)."

Map & Compass?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

The map won't pinpoint your location and the compass is likely to go as haywire as the GPS constellation since it relies on magnetism. Heck, compasses tend to bork on lightning which is much more frequent.

PS. Interesting an event this catastrophic measures in nanotesla. Makes me wonder what would happen if we were hit by an event that measures in the microtesla (or worse, millitesla).

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

Backup to GPS is a sextant. However in the middle of the day, the time to get a lock is a bit longer than GPS. I have seen some star trackers that will work during daylight hours, but they are not cheap, not small, and still unlikely to work with UK cloud cover.

More of an issue is that the Early warning system told us about it 1.5 years late; OK so it wasn't heading directly for us, so wasn't within the perimiter of the warning system; but that's just being pedantic.

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

ball of string and a piece of chalk?

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

everyones fillings would melt.

and that guy down the road who came back from 'nam with a metal plate in his head would become king

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

'Planning how to segment power grids' Not a good idea.

In the event of one of these hitting, and the warning system is now in place, unlike in 2012, then the UK with its national grid will actually fare better than the US with its regionalised grid. On a large grid, you turn everything on to spread the load, on a regionalised grid you have to turn everything off.

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Black Helicopters

Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

I'm actually off to the bunker, complete with tinfoil hat of course.

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

Why would a compass not read true during this nonsense? The Earth's magnetic field is still there and bending the harmful charged particle component of the flare away from us. 'Cos if it ain't, we have bigger problems than the GPS not working and not being able to tweet.

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

"In the event of one of these hitting, and the warning system is now in place, unlike in 2012, then the UK with its national grid will actually fare better than the US with its regionalised grid. On a large grid, you turn everything on to spread the load, on a regionalised grid you have to turn everything off."

But the regions would appear to be several times the size of the UK. New York State is a bit bigger than England, and the Power Failure of '04 (said in a creaky miner 49er voice to add authenticity) showed how regionalized the grid is actually.

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Re: I'm actually off to the bunker

Well, it's your choice of course, but I have to point out that your tinfoil hat will act as a focus for the electromagnetic pulse and will in all likelihood heat to an estimated bajillion degrees (admittedly degrees Fahrenheit) doing considerable damage to the perm and noggin therein.

By fashioning the tinfoil hat into a cup shape and filling the receptacle with water, stock, chopped veg and meat you can improvise an ablative and have some stew for dinner after the flare.

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Re: Remember it's a low probability event *until* it's actually happening

I sense a possible lack of understanding about the physical effects of such an event. In general, it will induce high voltages (and resultant high currents) in wires, particularly in long transmission lines. National grid or regional grid - makes little real difference; transformers connected to the grid at the time will almost certainly be disabled by the voltage surge induced in long transmission lines. What's needed is some warning and a method of very promptly disconnecting major equipment from the transmission grid. (Longer lines induce greater voltages; short lines induce much lower voltages.)

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Re: Why would a compass not read true during this nonsense

A magnetic compass would not read true because every piece of ferrous metal would be putting out a magnetic field, that due to is close proximity to you vs the earth's poles, would throw off the compass.

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Re: Why would a compass not read true during this nonsense

Also, odds are the air itself will ionize and start to hold a charge. The same thing happens when lightning strikes.

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Re: Why would a compass not read true during this nonsense

"A magnetic compass would not read true because every piece of ferrous metal would be putting out a magnetic field, that due to is close proximity to you vs the earth's poles, would throw off the compass."

Yes, but for how long? The GPS issue has to do with the long term effects of the destruction of the satellites in the path of the flare.

But once the flare has been swept past by the combined effects of the Sun's rotation and the orbital motion of the Earth, the magnetic field induced in these ferrous metal sources you cite would drop dramatically and the Earth's magnetic field would be able to re-assert itself over the local environment.

But furthermore, navigation by compass is really only an issue in places like deserts (where iron bearing mountains make a well-known mockery of mag compass readings) , plains (where the iron content is usually low) and the open sea (where the iron in question will be the hull of your own vessel), where you must navigate by dead reckoning in the absence of a real-time absolute fix on position (such as GPS).

Everywhere else you navigate by piloting - looking at things you know to be on the way to where you want to go and working from one to another until "there". In a car, these things are usually street signs, petrol stations and the like.

I'm not seeing the hurt here, compass wise.

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Coat

Re: Map & Compass?

What good is a geometry gizzmo for finding your way?

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could be worse

Glad I have a 2CV

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Re: could be worse

"Glad I have a 2CV"

Petrol pumps won't be dispensing, nor EPOS terminals working. So unless you've got a way of filling up by magic, you've got one tank of gloating before your jalopy joins the more modern machines as street furniture. Looking on the bright side, all these useless cars and buses could provide new homes fro tramps and the homeless, solving the problem of rough sleeping.

OTOH the cars probably provide sufficient of a Faraday cage to protect their own electronics...

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Re: could be worse

Well would probably get more than 1 tank as nobody else would be using the fuel and could grab fuel from abandoned cars littered about. They're not going to be using it. But apocolypse movies have shown me you get shot for your car, so i will probably not be driving so much anyway.

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Re: could be worse

I've had my petrol tank filled despite a local power failure.

Poor bastard pump attendant had to hand-crank every drop from the storage tank several metres below the ground, but eventually I had a full tank.

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Re: could be worse

"Glad I have a 2CV"

Your luminition probably won't work after the storm, so make sure your points and accumulator are fitted and in working order. Make sure you have the starting handle somewhere handy too. 8-)

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Joke

Re: could be worse

No one would shoot you for the 2CV... not one would want it.

(I have nothing against them, just could not resist the joke!)

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Re: could be worse

@terry

luminition !!!!

How advanced do you think i am !!!!!!!

Good old points for me :) although i would love a luminition kit.

don't worry

If i couldn't take the 2cv jokes i wouldn't drive one ;)

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Solar splat

Wonder if we'd have had F-layer propagation up into the VHF region, would have made reception interesting (and a chance of getting a few new records made on 2m ! )

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Solar splat

lord no. imagine ALLO CQ ALLO DX EASY ABLE THREE JAPAN ECHO EASY ABLE THREE JAPAN ECHO on 145.500

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Really?

Has there ever been any substantial damage on the ground from one of these things? We keep getting warnings and supposed near-misses but is there any actual evidence that we should care?

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Re: Really?

RTFA!

The 1859 storm, also known as the Carrington Event, after the British astronomer who recorded it, swept over the Earth at the end of August and is the largest recorded solar storm in history. The aurora borealis extended as far south as Cuba and telegraph systems burnt out across Europe and the US, in some cases shocking operators and continuing to send signals even when switched off.

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Re: Really?

"The 1859 storm...."

Yeah, when comms were unshielded and power grids unmanaged and unprotected against, well, ANYTHING.

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Re: Really?

""The 1859 storm...."

Yeah, when comms were unshielded and power grids unmanaged and unprotected against, well, ANYTHING."

And of course did not rely on unshielded electronics, or satellites or.....

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Childcatcher

Re: Really?

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/sun_darkness.html

On March 13, 1989 the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout. Hundreds of blackouts occur in some part of North America every year. The Quebec Blackout was different, because this one was caused by a solar storm!

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Re: Really?

1989!? Why does it suddenly feel like a "low probability event" may not have as low a probability as I'd like?

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Re: Really?

Carrington Event in 1859 was last major solar storm to significantly impact Earth. At that time, no electrical grid existed, no solid state electronics were in use, no satellite navigation or comms systems existed, etc. So...our best indication of the likely effects comes from observed damage to telegraph wires that existed in 1859. In general, they were extensively damaged, resulting in multiple fires and lots of destroyed wiring. Specific effects on a localized basis will probably vary, but certain things are highly likely on a widespread basis: long transmission lines will induce very large voltage surges that damage transformers, effectively disabling our power grids. Imagine society without electricity, but also without the less sophisticated ways of getting things done that electrical appliances have displaced. No pumps to distribute water in urban centers, or to remove sewage. No heating for many homes. No refrigeration to keep perishable foods fresh. Urban centers quickly (within a week?) become untenable without electrical power.

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Re: Really?

You know, I don't consider telegraph wires existing in 1859 to be a particularly great guide to what might happen today.

Wires get hot because your putting too much current over them, and I would assume that data cable in 1859 was less good at taking currant than CAT5. However, if we assume it was exactly identical then CAT5 could take what, about 25watts at 12v before starting to get hot or melting?

I can see that level being picked up, especially on long cable runs since we aren't talking high voltages here. However, I can't see a cable 2 inches thick used to carrying a thousand megawatts at 100-750 kv (ie; thousand volts) being melted. That's hundreds of thousands of times greater currant required to do any damage and transformers aren't exactly delicate little bits of microelectronics either. I can see why the crowd who ring us when they can't find the power button on the front of the PC would worry (or perhaps fantasise?) about all technology vanishing overnight, but I don't see why I should.

Oh, I'd imagine that the grid would go out of range and things would shutdown causing a blackout, but isn't that about the worst that's going to happen?

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Go

Re: Really?

@Peter2 - Back then phone and telegraph wire was almost 1/8' tp 1/4" solid copper wire. It probably did TOO GOOD of a job conducting electricity. With such a giant web of wire emanating out from major populations centers, even back then, it would have been like a giant capacitor. I imagine it was the sudden discharge of so much EMP that would literally make things explode, just like a nuclear EMP. Now days, we use some kind of aluminum alloy for above ground carrying capacity, and it can take more, but it can gather more too! I'm not sure it wouldn't be just as bad or worse, unless certain emergency trips are in place - just this summer's sun spot activity has burned out our local electric infrastructure several times. We didn't even have a full load of air conditioning on the system yet!

Ironically fiber optic communications cable will be immune to this damage, but the power wires that travel with the fiber optic cable to power the repeaters inside the cable will probably be fried. Since these happen about every kilometer, you'd think they could service such points independently from the fiber cable. Also unfortunately we use such small solid state chip technology now that even a sneeze could blow the entire mobo on many devices. Modern cars would be out of commission but antique automobiles would be unaffected, especially since they are mostly stored indoors. Ham operators that are still using the old vacuum tube sets, will be immune to this especially if they disconnect the antenna before the event. But I doubt they could predict it. Civil Defense technology was developed way back in the 1950's to shield many systems, and but now we'd need automated sensors of some kind to disconnect things automatically. I don't see any movement toward that end. Maybe after our entire infrastructure gets fried they will finally find the money somehow to update the equipment to the new reality. Might as well if it is fried already! All this talk of a "SMART" grid may be the answer?

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Re: Really?

I think your missing a basic understanding of electronics and electrical transmission infrastructure, as well as the fact that a car is a sufficiently good Faraday cage to take lighting bolts (for which there is some great footage of on youtube) which discounts damage to cars IMO.

Also- frying a sensitive low voltage device from with higher voltage is easy with extra voltage as it's sensitive to single digit change. Frying things meant to take literally hundreds of thousands of volts with an extra few hundred or thousand volts is not as easy.

I'm not going to bother arguing with you in detail because it's generally pointless on the Intranet, but unless you show at least back of the envelope figures to support your claims then i'm going to continue to consider them illiterate scaremongering.

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Re: a car is a sufficiently good Faraday cage

A car from the 1960s sure, probably even the 1970s. The 80s and 90s are 50/50. Anything today? Too much plastic or fiberglass to be a decent Faraday cage.

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Re: a car is a sufficiently good Faraday cage

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve6XGKZxYxA

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Analogue Nuclear?

Are nuclear powerstations controlled by manual technologies, so that in the event of electrical failure, an engineer can turn off the powerstation using his pliers and wrench set?

Just wondering what would have happenned if electrical control systems were fried.

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Re: Analogue Nuclear?

Yes, our AGR power stations can be shut down by a man in the basement opening a set of vavles to flood the core with boron covered balls.

Trashes the core and the station is completely borked as a result, but yes it can be shut down manually

The control rods are also on electro magnets as I rememebr , so no power to the core , the rods drop in and shut it down anyway

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Happy

Re: Analogue Nuclear?

Upvote for you Boris. AQ have a look at SCRAM in the encyclopaedia (post 1945) of your choice.

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Re: Analogue Nuclear?

An emergency shutdown can be carried out - but power will be required before too long for cooling and the like in most designs. If the onsite generator is dead and there's no power incoming from the grid then it becomes problematic.

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Re: Analogue Nuclear?

That's why having a fail safe for that too is best. No idea how many utilise this though.

I've seen designs that allow the core to melt into a pit underground that is angled/shaped to spread the material over a larger area (still contained), so it becomes non-critical.

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How near a miss

9 Days.. Forgetting where the suns rotation was pointing it for a sec 9 Days for us is about 9 degrees around our orbit Anyone any idea how many degrees wide the CMe was as it shot past our orbit.. and was it in front or behind of our orbital track?

Either way I'd say that was frigging close, for a global tech squasher.

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