Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 21, 2011

Some mind-blowin’ shit

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 2:09 am

Handout/GETTY IMAGES – A large flare was detected erupting from the surface of the sun on June 7.

As the sun awakens, the power grid stands vulnerable

By , Monday, June 20, 3:33 PM

The sun is waking up.

And on June 7, it woke up Michael Hesse. At 5:49 a.m., the solar scientist received an alert on his smartphone. NASA spacecraft had seen a burst of X-rays spinning out from a sunspot. The burst was a solar flare — and a “notably large one” at that, Hesse said later.

The sun has been quiet for years, at the nadir of its activity cycle. But since February, our star has been spitting out flares and plasma like an angry dragon. It’s Hesse’s job to watch these eruptions.

If a big one were headed our way, Hesse needed to know, and fast, so he could alert the electric power industry to brace for a geomagnetic storm that could knock some of the North American power grid offline.

Hesse gathered his team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where he is chief of the Space Weather Laboratory, and fed the latest data from four sun-staring satellites into powerful computers.

At 7:49 Hesse got his answer. An animated chart traced the predicted path of a huge arc of plasma — hot gas — hurtling through the inner solar system. But only the tail of the plume would lick Earth, arriving June 9 and driving a dazzling display of the northern lights from Alaska through Maine.

While a video of the eruption captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed an enormous plume spraying from the sun, this solar tantrum would not be the big one — it would not be the 1859 event all over again.

Sept. 1 of that year saw the largest solar flare on record, witnessed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. While tracing features of the sun’s surface, which Carrington had projected via telescope onto paper, he saw a sudden flash emerge from a dark spot. Although such sunspots had sparked curiosity for centuries — Galileo famously drew them, too, in the early 1600s — Carrington had no idea what the flash could mean.

Within hours, telegraph operators found out. Their long strands of wire acted as antennas for this huge wave of solar energy. As this tsunami sped by, transmitters heated up, and several burst into flames. Observers in Miami and Havana gaped skyward at eerie green and yellow displays, the northern lights pushed far south.

A knockout punch

Such a “Carrington event” will happen again someday, but our wired civilization will suffer losses far greater than a few telegraph shacks.

Communications satellites will be knocked offline. Financial transactions, timed and transmitted via those satellite, will fail, causing millions or billions in losses. The GPS system will go wonky. Astronauts on the space station will huddle in a shielded module, as they have done three times in the past decade due to “space weather,” the scientific term for all of the sun’s freaky activity. Flights between North America and Asia, over the North Pole, will have to be rerouted, as they were in April during a weak solar storm at a cost to the airlines of $100,000 a flight. And oil pipelines, particularly in Alaska and Canada, will suffer corrosion as they, like power lines, conduct electricity from the solar storm.

But the biggest impact will be on the modern marvel known as the power grid. And experts warn that the grid is not ready. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences stated that an 1859-level storm could knock out power in parts of the northeastern and northwestern United States for months, even years. Report co-author John Kappenmann estimated that about 135 million Americans would be forced to revert to a pre-electric lifestyle or relocate. Water systems would fail. Food would spoil. Thousands could die. The financial cost: Up to $2 trillion, one-seventh the annual U.S. gross domestic product.

Utilities say they’re studying the issue, with an eye toward understanding how to protect the grid by powering down sections of it during an hours-long solar storm.

Their efforts are motivated, in part, by the sun’s increasingly frequent outbursts. Every 11 to 12 years, solar activity ramps up. After a quiet season, the sun is now spitting out flares again, with activity expected to peak in 2013 and 2014, said Dean Pesnell, a solar scientist at Goddard.

“The sun is not partisan, it doesn’t listen to diplomacy, and sanctions don’t work,” said Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis. Huessy wants Congress to enact rules that would force power companies to better protect the power grid. “The sun has its own clock. And we don’t know what that clock is, except for once every hundred years or so, it has a coronary.”

full: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/science/as-the-sun-awakens-the-power-grid-stands-vulnerable/2011/06/09/AGwc8DdH_story.html

Final minute of “Knowing”, a sci-fi movie starring Nicholas Cage

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting stuff. When folks asked me why I took up the violin so late in life, I used to tell them “It will be something to do once the power goes out. ” Of course, I never considered that it might be too cold to get my fingers to move right.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — June 21, 2011 @ 8:55 pm


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