U.S. Sharpens Surveillance of Crippling Solar Storms

From Scientific American:

As early as the end of this month, NOAA should have a much better idea of just how dangerous those electromagnetic storms are. The agency will begin releasing forecasts that use a more sophisticated model to predict how incoming solar storms could fry electrical power grids. It will be the clearest guide yet as to which utility operators, in what parts of the world, need to worry.

“This is the first time we will get short-term forecasts of what the changes at the surface of the Earth will be,” says Bob Rutledge, lead forecaster at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. “We can tell a power-grid customer not only that it will be a bad day, but give them some heads-up on what exactly they will be facing.”

Powerful solar storms can knock out radio communications and satellite operations, but some of their most devastating effects are on electrical power grids. In 1989, a solar storm wiped out Canada’s entire Hydro-Québec grid for hours, leaving several million people in the dark. In 2003, storm-induced surges fried transformers in South Africa and overheated others at a nuclear power plant in Sweden. But if a power company knows that a solar storm is coming, officials can shunt power from threatened areas of the network to safer ones or take other precautions.

Until now, NOAA had warned of solar activity using the planetary K-index, a scale that ranks the current geomagnetic threat to the entire Earth. The new ‘geospace’ forecast, which draws on more than two decades of research, comes in the form of a map showing which areas are likely to be hit hardest (G. Tóth et al. J. Geophys. Res. Space Phys. 110, A12226; 2005).

Knowing that Canada, for instance, will be hit harder than northern Europe helps grid operators, says Tamas …

Continue Reading