May 6, 2012

Occupy The Sun ... Just Try It

Coronal Mass Ejection
*kaaaach ... kaaaach ... ptoooey!*

Drudge has referenced an article from the LA Times regarding the possibility of a massive, perhaps global power outage caused by solar activity. Apparently those who study our sun predict a 12% chance of a colossal Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) sometime within the next decade. A CME occurs when
the magnetic field in the sun's atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun's hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space.
Think of a star hacking up a loogie and the Earth as a spittoon.

Think  November 9, 1965, when 30,000,000 people in the US Northeast were in the dark due to a massive CME event. Living with my parents on Long Island, I remember this one. My sister remembers it even better. She was returning home from NYC on a high school bus when the entire city skyline simply disappeared before her eyes. Poof. Lights out!
From Buffalo to the eastern border of New Hampshire and from New York City to Ontario, a massive power outage struck without warning. Trains were stuck between subway stops. People were trapped in elevators. Failed traffic signals stopped traffic dead. And, at the height of the Cold War, many thought Armageddon had arrived. One pilot flying over a darkened New York City stated, "I thought, 'another Pearl Harbor!'" By 5:40 p.m. that evening, 80,000 square miles of the Northeast United States and Ontario, Canada, were without power...

Think March 9, 1989, when the power grid in Quebec, Canada, took a 6,000,000 residential household nap after a large CME event.

Think September 1, 1859, when the world's telegraph service was shut down due to a CME called the Carrington Event. 
That night, telegraph communications around the world began to fail; there were reports of sparks showering from telegraph machines, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. All over the planet, colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp and laborers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising.

[...]Many telegraph lines across North America were rendered inoperable on the night of August 28 as the first of two successive solar storms struck. E.W. Culgan, a telegraph manager in Pittsburgh, reported that the resulting currents flowing through the wires were so powerful that platinum contacts were in danger of melting and “streams of fire” were pouring forth from the circuits. In Washington, D.C., telegraph operator Frederick W. Royce was severely shocked as his forehead grazed a ground wire. According to a witness, an arc of fire jumped from Royce’s head to the telegraphic equipment. Some telegraph stations that used chemicals to mark sheets reported that powerful surges caused telegraph paper to combust.
And that gird was nothing compared to what exists today. But, still, what makes the sun turn our power gird into limp copper spaghetti?

Electromagnetic induction as set forth in Faraday's Law.
Michael Faraday formulated that electromotive force (EMF) produced around a closed path is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic flux through any surface bounded by that path. In practice, this means that an electric current will be induced in any closed circuit when the magnetic flux through a surface bounded by the conductor changes. This applies whether the field itself changes in strength or the conductor is moved through it.
Pass an electromagnetic field (such as the one generated by the Sun's plasma - ionized gases) through a closed circuit (anything that can conduct electricity be it steel, aluminum or copper) and an electric current is created. That is how your car battery is charged by an alternator. That is how a coal/gas/nuclear power plant works.

Now pass a freaking massive electromagnetic field through a circuit that is not able to handle the current and you've got some real problems. Think computers where the most common load on a circuit is 5 volts and no more than 12. Think automobiles, satellites, electric bulbs, DVD players, surveillance cameras, the electrical circuits in airplanes and ships, GPS, cellphones, telephone wires and transformers.  Consider the circuits in your house, the circuits in hospitals, the circuits in schools, police stations, prisons, supermarkets, gas stations, water supply systems, air traffic controllers, ground vehicle traffic controllers ... not to get all breathless about it, but it can be a BFD.


Silverfiddle said...

There is technology (Metal Oxide Varistors, fancy "fuses" ect) to attempt to interrupt circuits or shunt the surges to ground. I don't know how extensively we've employed them.

Even the best protective measures would result in big disruptions due to the protective measures.

You are right, such an event could be catastrophic

Woodsterman (Odie) said...

You don't mean to say put your head between you legs and kiss ...

Christopher - Conservative Perspective said...

We are are due for such an event and are powerless to avoid it just like "global warming" or "global cooling" so as they teach in the Scouts - Always be prepared.

sig94 said...

Silverfiddle - I just wonder how fast these safety features will activate, the "Clamp Time" so to speak. Sure, we all have breakers and fuses in our cars and homes power plants, etc., but will they do the trick? Just how big will the surge be?

sig94 said...

Odie - I guess we won't know for sure until it happens.

I hate it when I say that.

sig94 said...

Chris - "Semper Paratus" as the Romans used to say.