Jul 262014
 
A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

There’s a 50/50 chance that a massive solar storm will hit the earth and destroy most/all our electrical and electronic equipment some time in the next 42 years.  Are you prepared for this?

We’ve written many times before about the vulnerability posed to much/most of our electrical and electronic gear by a major solar storm.  Indeed, noting the expert opinion that suggests there’s a 12% chance of this type of disruptive solar storm destroying most of our modern life and lifestyle within the next decade, a solar storm and its effects should be considered one of the greatest risks of all to prepare for.

There are two issues to consider when thinking about solar storms.  The first is how strong it will be.  The second is whether it will reach the earth or not.

That second point is a bit of a saving grace, because solar storms don’t radiate out equally in all directions from the sun simultaneously.  They flow in a specific direction, and if the earth isn’t in the path of that flow, it has no impact on us.

Here’s a fascinating story of two solar storms that erupted in close succession a couple of years ago (why are we only finding out about this now?) and which had the potential to “disable everything that plugs into a wall socket”.

Fortunately, the direction those two solar storms traveled did not take them past where the earth was at that time.  But imagine if they had come directly to us.  How would your life change if everything plugged into a wall socket was disabled?  Remember, it isn’t just everything plugged into your wall sockets, but everything plugged into everyone’s wall sockets that would be disabled.  Oh yes, to say nothing of the electrical grid and the transformers and switching circuitry that routes the electricity around the country.

The article points out one impact – you’d no longer be able to flush your toilet, due to the city water supplies suffering from electric pump failures.  But not flushing your toilet (oh yes, the sewage lines would back up too, because the sewage pumps would also fail) would surely be the least of your worries.  How about also no fresh water to drink or cook with?  No heat (or cooling) and light for your home.  No food in the stores.  No internet or phones.  Pretty much no anything at all, and potentially for somewhere between weeks, months and years (the super-transformers in particular would take many years to replace).

The good news is that a solar storm would not destroy our retreat or current dwelling structure, and would not instantly emperil ourselves.  If we were quick, we would have time to respond to the event before the general population as a whole realized what had happened and started to panic.

A response (and panic) might actually take longer to occur than you think.  If all radio, television, phone and internet services are down, it would take some time before what people would instinctively assume merely to be a pesky short-term power cut became to be appreciated as a more severe, more global, and longer-term event.

Even as that awareness slowly developed, there would still be a huge passive expectation that ‘the government will help us’ – although of course, the flipside of that expectation is very ugly.  As people realize the government isn’t going to help them and can’t help them, that encourages a feeling of outrage and betrayal and a perception that all normal rules and constraints have been abandoned.  That’s the point when people start rioting, looting, setting fire to things, and becoming mindlessly violent at anyone who they feel deserves to be the focal point of their anger – in particular, anyone they see as being more fortunate than themselves.

It would definitely be a good time to be getting out of Dodge!

Bottom Line for Preppers?

Massive solar storms that could destroy everything plugged into a socket have occurred before (the Carrington event in 1859, and probably more in the past that didn’t matter so much when we had nothing electrical or electronic to be affected by them).  Not quite so severe solar storms have occurred more recently (Quebec in 1989).

It is more a case of when rather than if another solar storm will hit the earth with severe – unimaginable – consequences.  Statistics say there is 12% chance of this happening in the next ten years, which means it is almost sure to happen every 83 years, and there’s a 50/50 chance every 42 years.

Solar storms are survivable because they don’t destroy structures or injure people.  But they require you to be well prepared and able to become fully self-sufficient for probably a decade or more.

One last comment.  Our sense is the authorities underplay this risk.  We feel they prefer to under-rate the chances of this happening, and to under-rate the impact if it does happen.  Even in this most recent article, the example of the disaster that would follow is limited to ‘your toilet won’t flush’!  But think about that – if your toilet won’t flush, you’re in a dozen other worlds of hurt that are much more life threatening, at the same time.  The authorities prefer to downplay this rather than alarm the masses and expose their own inability to protect us the way so many people expect, demand, and assume.

Jul 082014
 
An  interesting depiction of some of the many impacts from a major solar storm.

An interesting depiction of some of the many impacts from a major solar storm.

Here’s a rather simplistic article that talks about the potential for solar storms to disrupt many aspects of our modern-day life.

What is interesting however is their pie chart analysis of some of the derivative disruptions from a solar storm (shown on the left and more easily seen full size in the linked article).

Like so much that appears in public about our society’s underlying vulnerabilities, we feel their chart is more optimistic than perhaps is appropriate, particularly if the storm were to be a massive scale ‘Carrington Event’ rather than a more moderate storm.  But, optimistic or not, it still shows a wide and – hopefully – eye-opening range of negative outcomes and impacts from a single strong solar storm.

It is a shame this was not prepared with more care.  See, for example, the assumption that a solar storm would simply disrupt satellite communications during the (short) period of the storm, and that things would then quickly return back to normal.  That assumption implies that the satellites would not be damaged, and that’s an assumption we’re not sure is fully valid.

Some things appear  twice on the wheel as well – for example, aviation,  which is shown as having widespread outages (as a result of disruptions to the power grid) but only short-term disruption elsewhere on the wheel.  How can it be both?

There is an interesting point in the article.  It is common to plan for 100 year floods, but few if any businesses seem to be prepared for a once in 100 year solar event.

What about you?  How prepared are you for the disruptions that would follow a solar storm?

Aug 012013
 
A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

Of all the risks we anticipate and prep for, an EMP event is perhaps the most terrifying.  A single well-placed EMP bomb could destroy much/most of the electronics in the entire US – oh, and in most of Canada too, resulting in an instant collapse of almost everything.

EMP events can come from two different sources.  One is a deliberate act by an aggressor nation or terrorist group, launching a specific EMP causing device and activating it high above the US.  This is, unfortunately, very much easier to do than you might think – an EMP device is nothing more than a regular atomic bomb on a regular ICBM, possibly with some modifications to enhance its EMP yield, and detonated at high altitude rather than close to the ground.

The other source is at least as fickle as the first, and whereas there have been no deliberate EMP attacks by people, this other source has attacked us repeatedly with EMP events.  We refer, of course, to the sun.

The sun is not a steady constant energy source.  Like a regular fire, it has variable hot spots and cold spots, and sort of analogous to a fire sometimes sparking out some embers that might land on our carpet, so too does the sun sometimes eject massive bursts of energy that have the same EMP effects on electronics.  We talk about the dangers of solar storms in a series of articles here.

There have been solar storms in the past that were sufficiently strong to destroy electronics, but they have happily occurred prior to our current total dependence on micro-miniaturized electronics.  The most significant past event that we’re aware of was in 1859, and was so extreme that it melted telegraph wires across Europe and North America.  We can only guess as to how many past events there have been, because prior to about that time, there were no electrical devices for solar storms to affect.

If a solar storm similar to the 1859 event occurred now, it would of course destroy much of the world’s electronics.

In order for this to occur, two things need to both be in place.  The first, of course, is for a sufficiently strong solar storm to erupt.  The second is for this solar storm to intercept the earth in its orbit.

The good news is that it requires an unusually large solar storm to do the sort of damage we need to be concerned about, and the further good news is that the earth is a tiny spec, 93 million miles from the sun.  Most storms pass harmlessly by, and come nowhere near the earth.

But, as we know, sometimes they don’t miss.  Sometimes, as in 1859, they do intercept the earth.  A not so strong smaller storm also hit (but only parts of Canada) in 1989.

Sooner or later, a massive sized solar storm will hit the earth again, and it will destroy much/most of our society’s infrastructure.  When will this occur?

No-one knows the answer to that, any more than anyone can tell you how many times you need to roll a pair of dice before you get a double-six.  But we do know, as this article reports, that just a couple of weeks ago we narrowly missed a solar storm that would have destroyed us, and as we report in this earlier article, experts say there is a 12% chance of being hit by such a storm sometime in the next ten years.

Oh, and as we report in this article, 2013 is a year of greater than normal solar storm activity.

Back to the dice.  We don’t know when we’ll get the double-six, but we do know that it will appear sooner or later.  Similarly, we don’t know when the next 1859 style solar storm will hit us, but we do know that, sooner or later, it will.  Emphasize the sooner, because experts suggest there’s one chance in eight (ie 12%) it will happen in the next decade.  How lucky do you feel?

Tell that to your friends the next time they poke fun at your prepping.  Depending on where you live, there’s more chance of a solar storm induced EMP destroying every part of their lives than there is of an earthquake, tsunami, or volcano.  Many people fear these other types of relatively minor and essentially regional disasters; perhaps it is because the EMP event is so huge that it overloads our ability to comprehend the consequences and we find it easier to ignore it than to confront it.

That’s why we are preppers.  We choose to confront these challenges and prepare for them.  We should encourage our friends and family to do the same.

Jul 302013
 
Satellites provide both obvious and obscure but essential services to every aspect of our modern convenient lives.

Satellites provide both obvious and obscure but essential services to every aspect of our modern convenient lives.

Ignore, for the moment, how it would happen, and instead think about what would happen, if all the satellites ‘up there’ stopped working.  The BBC recently published an article asking – and answering – that question.

You can probably guess at some of the results of a global failure of all satellites.  Our GPS systems would stop working.  A lot of the content on our televisions and radios would disappear – not just satellite radio and tv channels, but regular programming on regular stations, too; much of which is distributed by satellite feed.

Some long distance phone communications would become more difficult.  While much/most long distance phone communications go by terrestrial microwave or fiber or cable, some is still routed via satellite.

Weather forecasting and reporting would become more difficult.

Air traffic control would deteriorate, although the transition from ground/radar systems to GPS type systems has been shamefully slow in the making and is only rolling out now.

So there’s a quick list of five effects of a loss of all satellites, none of which sound like they are life changing or life threatening, right?

But let’s now ‘drill down’ a bit further and consider some of the other uses and implications of satellites.

If our weather forecasting abilities deteriorate, that has massive implications on many things.  It interferes with optimized crop production.  It makes it harder to plan sufficiently in advance for severe weather such as hurricanes.  Airplanes are more likely to fly into storms rather than be able to avoid them.

The military uses of satellites is also significant.  A great deal of intelligence gathering is done via satellite – not just real-time and offline imagery (both still and video) but SIGINT too – monitoring ‘the other guy’ and understanding some of what he is up to.  Satellites are also used to control our growing squadrons of drones around the world, and are used for tactical communications by personnel in many areas of the overall military structure.

These continue to be bothersome, but not life changing.  There are many more ‘pin prick’ type issues such as this – ranging from the failure of many ’emergency locator beacons’ to a slow down in first responder services due to not being able to use GPS to most efficiently get where they are going.  But possibly the biggest problem would come from an unexpected aspect of the loss of the GPS satellites that has nothing to do with location data.

GPS satellites do a great deal more than simply tell us where we are.  But don’t sneer at the value of that ‘simple’ thing.  Most of us, several times a year, and possibly even several times a day, reply on our GPS units.  Or, if we don’t directly reply on the GPS to navigate with, maybe we rely on its derivative data – showing us a traffic conditions map, enabling us to decide which route we take to get between home and work.  Much of that traffic data comes from ‘probes’ – a fancy way of saying ‘monitoring the GPS in your phone, and if the GPS fails, so too do the probes and therefore, the traffic data in general.

However, we’re still only skirting the edges of problems when GPS systems fail.  Sure, commercial transport relies on GPS much more than we as ‘ordinary’ drivers, and we’ll all have to start to find our old maps and brush up on our map reading skills.  But, the really big thing, uncovered in the BBC’s largely simplistic analysis, is the other thing that the GPS service provides – ultra-accurate timekeeping.

The BBC claims that without the timekeeping services provided by GPS, the entire internet will degrade and possibly even collapse.  And all of a sudden, that’s a very different ballgame, isn’t it.  The article says

Our infrastructure is held together by time – from time stamps on complex financial transactions to the protocols that hold the internet together. When the packets of data passing between computers get out of sync, the system starts to break down. Without accurate time, every network controlled by computers is at risk. Which means almost everything.  [Our emphasis]

So, the loss of satellites – or, even worse, the loss of just the GPS satellites, would end up meaning TEOTWAWKI.

Now, how likely is it that such an event might occur?  More likely than you might think.

One major solar storm would be all it takes.  A major solar storm could destroy the GPS satellites (as well as so much more besides).  We’ve written about the risk of solar storms before, and in particular, in this article we quote from a study which estimates there to be a 12% chance of a super storm occurring in the next ten years.

So, there’s about a one in eight chance that some time in the next decade our modern world’s infrastructure will be destroyed.  Are you prepared?

Jul 132012
 

Our national grid relies on 2100 of these mammoth – and in many respects, irreplaceable – transformers.

We regularly worry in our articles about a failure of our nation’s electricity grid – the criss-crossing network of power lines that connect the various power generating facilities around the country with the various power consuming facilities – most particularly, the major switching substations that route the highest voltage connections around the country.

Think of the power grid a bit like a transportation network.  We have super-highways, regular freeways, highways, arterials, surface roads, minor roads, cul-de-sacs and so on.  For example, to drive from home to work, you first leave your driveway, maybe go down a residential street, then to a more heavily trafficked street, then to a major arterial, then onto a freeway, then through an interchange and onto another freeway, then off, via various surface streets, and ending up in the parking garage underneath your office.

It is the same thing with the movement of power across the country.  Power originates in a generating station, then travels to a switching station where it then joins a ‘super highway’; it travels across the country, and perhaps goes through some interchanges as it changes ‘freeways’, then starts to feed down through surface streets and their intersections, until ending up coming in to your own household.

The key points of vulnerability to the power network are not the thousands of miles of power line.  It is the ‘interchanges’ – the switching stations.  The power is useless and meaningless in the power lines – it only has value if it can pass through all the ‘interchanges’ and ‘intersections’ and complete its journey at your light switch and light.

Our Power Grid is a Mismatch of Incompatible Components

Unlike our national interstate system (and also unlike the internet), there aren’t a huge number of different routes power can travel to the people who need it.  And not every different path is fully compatible with every other different path.

There are 2100 major high voltage transformers (consider them as freeway interchanges) and in total, the nation’s power grid is operated not by a single authority or even by a coalition of half a dozen major players (as is the case with the internet, for example) but instead by an assortment of some 5,000 different entities, most of whom are competing with each other.

Furthermore, these 2,100 transformers aren’t all the same and interchangeable.  An industry rule of thumb says that for every 13 transformers, you’ll encounter ten different designs.

Unsurprisingly, all these different pieces fit together somewhat clumsily.  For example, this article talks some more about the vulnerability of the power grid to solar storms.

Repairing a Damaged Grid is Difficult

A retail chain, some years ago, had a famous and very successful slogan – ‘It is the putting right that counts’.  The key concern, with our power grid vulnerability, really is not so much the vulnerability itself (although that is of course a concern too) but rather ‘the putting right’ – restoring electrical service to the nation if/when it is disrupted.  If power can be restored in a matter of hours, then it is hardly life changing.  But if a grid failure could lead to many years without any power at all, then clearly it becomes a matter of highest national strategic importance.

Unfortunately, for anything other than very minor disruptions, restoring the grid becomes a huge and lengthy problem.  The main reason for this?  The US no longer makes high voltage transformers itself.

These days, if we want a new high voltage transformer, we have to order it from an Asian (ie Chinese) manufacturer and wait for it to be built then shipped to us.  Due to their size and weight, they can’t be airfreighted.  A new transformer can weigh up to 200 tons, and they are too large to be trucked to their ultimate destination – they have to travel on special flat-bed rail wagons (and these rail wagons are in short supply, too).

The need to ship by rail adds another dimension to the problem of replacing transformers – as our nation’s rail network shrinks and shrivels, many places that formerly had rail lines leading directly to them have lost their track, leaving different remaining distances for the transformers to somehow be transported from the nearest railhead to the switching power station where it is needed.

Because transformers normally last for about 50 years, and because in much of the developed world, there’s only modest ongoing growth in power consumption, there’s not a lot of manufacturing capacity.  Only 2% of transformers need to be replaced each year, and usually these replacements are planned well in advance.  Most power companies and most manufacturers don’t keep an inventory of spare transformers – a problem made worse by the lack of standardization of transformers.

It is generally accepted that a new order for a transformer will take around 3 years for it to be made and shipped.  If there was a rush on transformer replacements (eg after a solar storm damaged many) then the first 2% of transformers could be made in 3 years, the next 2% would have to wait another year, and so on and so on.  It could take as much as a decade to replace a major series of transformer failures.

And this decade guesstimate assumes that the Chinese manufacturers dedicate all their capacity to our country’s needs, and also assumes they urgently expand their production capabilities.  Can we really rely on other countries such as China – countries that don’t necessarily have our best interests closely at heart and inseparably aligned with ours – to help us when we’re at our most vulnerable?

This article details some more about transformer issues.

Storm Related Outages Are Different

Maybe you’ve had a power outage yourself – perhaps after a windstorm, or perhaps due to some inexplicable thing that you never really were told exactly what it was.  Maybe it was just for a few minutes, maybe it was for a week or longer, and maybe the outage was limited to only a half dozen houses, or maybe it extended over a half dozen states.

Outages are nothing new, indeed, on average, half a million power customers have some type of outage every day.

But – and here’s the catch.  These outages are very different to the ones we are considering.  They are typically due to power poles being blown over, or trees falling on the power lines, or, at worst, a very minor substation transformer blowing.

Fixing these outages simply requires a crew to re-run the power lines, or to truck in another transformer, and maybe to shift some loads in some parts of the grid.

These outages – even when extending over several states – are not due to one, or ten, or a hundred or more of the 2,100 major super-transformers failing, and so are easy to respond to and resolve.

But if we do lose a number of the super-transformers all in close succession, we have nothing to replace them with.  We can’t restore power until we get new super-transformers, some years later.

Not Just Solar Related Dangers – Hackers Too

In addition to the random acts of the sun’s solar storms, we also have to consider more directed attacks on our power grid – manmade attacks.

The easiest way to disrupt the power grid is of course simply to physically blow up transformers.  With only 2,100 key transformers in total, and only a small percentage of those needing to be disabled to impact on many millions of people, and little or no effective security protecting the super-transformers, it is far from unthinkable that terrorists might attempt a low-tech old-fashioned bombing campaign to destroy a region’s power network.

But that is, indeed, a low-tech and old-fashioned approach, and not without difficulty and risk to the terrorists.  A much easier approach is to hack into the control systems – the computers that control the operation of the transformers and the flow of power across the network.

While some commentators say ‘it is not possible to do this’ and promise us that the control computers are secure, they are, alas, talking nonsense.  It serves their purposes to downplay the extent of the risk and the vulnerabilities that are already being exploited, but when you can get people to talk more frankly, for example as reported in this Wall St Journal article, the truth is scary.  Not only are our power control computer networks vulnerable, but they have already been hacked into and compromised.

This is unsurprising.  It seems there is no computer on the planet which is not now connected to the internet, and if we and the Israelis can hack into Iran’s nuclear research and development computers and take them over, causing the computers to run amok and destroy the centrifuges they are controlling, surely other nations can do the same to us.  We’re not the only nation with precocious teenage hackers by any means.

Although the April 2009 Wall St Journal article we linked to immediately above reported – as all such articles do – on how steps are being taken to improve the security of the power grid, here’s a December 2011 article in the Christian Science Monitor headlined ‘Power Grid grows more vulnerable to attack’.

The article quotes an MIT study which suggests that the electrical utilities are creating new vulnerabilities faster than they are patching old ones.  The good news is the cost of improving the grid’s cyber-security is low – about $4 billion.  The bad news – the utilities feel that the possibility of being attacked is too low to worry about, and not worth spending $4 billion to protect against.

The MIT report disagrees and views cyber-attacks on the grid as inevitable.  It isn’t a case of if, it is a case of when.

An interesting related thought – the Wall St Journal article mentioned that some of the cyber-attacks have come from China.  What happens if the Chinese destroy our transformers, then refuse to sell us replacement ones?

More Risks – EMP

We explain what EMP type attacks are, here.

In the specific context of power grids, they have two vulnerabilities in the event of an EMP attack.  The first is the E1 pulse, which could destroy many or all of the control computers that manage the electricity grid.  If the controlling computers go down, so too does the grid.

The second vulnerability is the E3 component, which would be received through the power lines acting as gigantic antennas, and then directed into the transformers and destroying them.

As we discuss in the next section, our grid has become more vulnerable to solar storms; and the mechanism which creates a vulnerability from solar storms is identical to the E3 component effects of an EMP.

How Severe a Problem Are the Grid’s Vulnerabilities?

Opinions differ as to the extent of the vulnerabilities that relate to our power grid.

At one extreme are reports such as this article in Time, which says ‘because we’ve never had a total disruption before, there’s no danger of one in the future’.  That’s brilliant logic, isn’t it, and sadly consistent with much of the non-prepper mindset.

The article goes on to say ‘Don’t worry, all essential services have backup power supplies’.  We don’t find that very reassuring.  Just a week ago, Amazon’s web services had a power related outage.  What happened to their backup power supplies?  We’ve no idea, but we do know that Amazon’s terms of service specifically exempt them from liability in the case of power supply failure.

We also know that the state of the art ultra-sophisticated super-hardened colocation facility where our primary webserver is located has also suffered power failures in the past too, even though they have more in the way of backup systems and redundancies than any two normal computing centers would have.

We wonder further what happens when the backup diesel generators run out of diesel.  If there’s a regional outage of power, there’ll be no diesel being refined, shipped, or pumped.

And, anyway, while it might be a reassuring thought, to some people, that hospitals and internet services can survive for a month or two, what about us?  There’s no backup power supply for regular consumers.  How long can we personally survive, how long can businesses survive, without power?

As well as unrealistically optimistic articles like the Time story above, we also have more soberly realistic articles such as this in Scientific American, which talks about how if a solar storm which occurred in 1921, causing only minimal damage then, was to re-occur now, the result would be a loss of 300 of the super-transformers and  130 million people being without power for years.

Part of the reason we are more vulnerable to such natural impacts is due to the changing nature of our power grid.  We have more and longer runs of power lines now than we did before – in the last 50 years the total length of power line in the country has increased ten-fold, and the average length of each highest capacity line has grown four-fold.  This four-fold increase in length makes it a better ‘antenna’ to receive the electro-magnetic interference from the sun, and for this interference to then overload and burn out the transformers.

The 2011 Scientific American article also says that NASA now has vital early warning capabilities.  We suggest that is an over-optimistic statement – as this article of ours, written a year later in July 2012 points out, NASA and NOAA are still unable to consistently predict and agree upon solar impacts.  In other words, even the more realistic articles are still showing themselves as being overly optimistic.

Summary

The security of our nation’s power grid is a bit like the security of our front door.  Hopefully you’ve never had burglars break into your home.  And you lock your door.  But you know in your heart of hearts that the lock doesn’t really give you true security.

A determined burglar will pick the lock or kick the door out of its frame, and be inside in less time than it takes to read this paragraph.  And a runaway vehicle that crashes into your front door at 60 mph is going through it, lock or not.

That sums up the ‘security’ of our power grid.  A determined hacker/terrorist, or a severe natural event, could destroy it in a flash.  Much or all of the country could suddenly find itself with no power, and the restoration of power could take 5 – 10 years to complete.

We’re not going to guess as to if a grid failure will be due to malicious deliberate attacks by our enemies, or by the awesome natural power of the sun, or through some other random act of chance.

But we do view the risk of a catastrophic long-term widespread failure of our power grid as severe, and creating either a long-term Level 2 or possibly even a full Level 3 situation.  Your response to such a threat has to involve abandoning the city you probably live in now and moving to a safe and sustainable rural retreat.

Jul 132012
 

This NASA image hints at the awesome power of the sun – power which could potentially destroy our electricity grid.

Up front disclaimer – we don’t think that our power grid will fail this coming weekend.  But – and here’s the thing that applies to all prudent prepping – we don’t know for sure, one way or the other.  Anything that is unknown but possible is exactly that – a possibility, and we need to keep all possibilities in mind and assign varying degrees of priority to the risks they represent and the appropriate way to mitigate their potential risks.

As we pointed out on Wednesday, the sun is entering a period of potentially peak cyclical activity, and additionally is experiencing some unusual changes to its underlying magnetic poles.  Underscoring our comments, on Thursday an ‘extreme solar flare’ erupted on Thursday (reported here and elsewhere).

And as we pointed out a couple of months back, experts predict there is a 12% chance of a catastrophic failure of our national electricity distribution grid, as a result of solar storm induced issues, some time in the next ten years.  It seems reasonable to assume that this risk will be concentrated more on the next two or three years of maximum solar activity, rather than the years after that as activity drops down again.

So, there’s a real risk, and it applies to the next few years.

Now for more worrying news.  The experts themselves don’t seem to understand exactly what might happen, when, how or why.  This article points out that NOAA and NASA can’t get their stories straight about the strength of current solar storm headed our way, or when it might arrive.

That is worrying.  They both start off with the same source data, but can’t reach similar conclusions.  Are they experts or amateurs?  It is like they were both given the same problem ‘If two boys have ten apples between them, and A has four apples more between them, how many apples does B have’ and come up with different answers.

The reason for the confusion is that there’s a lot less exact science in the field of understanding solar flares than we’d hope for.  The math problem perhaps reads, instead, ‘If two boys have something kinda sorta like ten or so apples between them, and if A has a handful more than B, how many apples does B have’.  And they are given a blurry photo of the two boys but it is hard to make out the shapes of the apples.

So here’s a risk that we know too little about, but which we do know could destroy our modern world, and not only do we know it could do this, we accept there’s actually a measurable significant chance that it will do this.

Amazingly, most of the world finds this level of ignorance reassuring.  That’s a bit like the ostrich that buries its head in the sand, isn’t it.

More prudent people find such uncertainty alarming, and choose to focus on somewhere between a realistic and a negative outcome to plan what to do.

If you’d like to know more about the very complicated field of solar conditions and ‘weather’ here’s an interesting starting point on NASA’s site.  And here’s an article from 2010 that presciently says that solar storm behavior can surprise forecasters.

The bottom line?  Well, no-one really knows for sure.  But you’d be well advised to prepare for trouble.

Jul 112012
 

The sun is entering a period of peak solar storm activity, with an associated measurable risk of destroying our entire electricity grid for 4 – 10 years.

Solar flares interfere with radio communications to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the magnitude of the flare), and potentially to other electrical and electronic equipment as well, including causing the loss of power to all of Quebec in 1989.

With our increasingly connected world, the potential for greater damage from solar flares seems to be increasing.

And talking about increasing, solar activity follows an eleven year cycle.  We are nearing the peak of this current cycle, which will hit the maximum in May 2013 (assuming that the world doesn’t end in December 2012!), before dropping down over the 5.5 years that follow before then rising up again.

July 4 this year was notable not only for our usual fireworks, but for additional fireworks courtesy of the sun – a solar flare eruption that registered max on the solar flare scale (it has five level – A, B, C, M and X, with each level being ten times greater than the one before, meaning an X flare is 10,000 times greater than an A level flare.  This was an X level flare, although note the largest X level flare recorded.  That distinction might possibly belong to one in 1859 – what is often referred to as the Carrington flare and which was many times more powerful than the 1989 flare that disrupted Quebec’s power grid.

Some disruption has been experienced by some radio services.  More is expected.

Here’s an interesting article on the recent eruption.

New Solar Instability Too

You probably know about the earth’s magnetic field – it has a magnetic north and south pole, slightly away from the geographical ‘true’ north and south poles.  The magnetic field is what allows compasses to work, and also helps protect us from solar radiation.

The sun too has a north and south pole, and part of the reason for its 11 or so year cycles of activity is due to the magnetic field flipping (when this happens corresponds to times of maximum solar activity).

But something happened, and the sun has now been observed to have two north poles and two south poles – it has become a quadrupoled object.

The sun’s magnetic field influences the frequency and intensity of its solar storms.  This new quadrupole configuration (first reported here) has unknown implications for what we can expect, but Murphy’s Law being what it is, the chances are that this is not a good development.

Interestingly though, it may lead to a period of lesser solar activity, which would also have harmful effects – less solar activity would mean a period of global cooling here.

So, what does all this mean for us?  In an earlier article about solar disruptions, we reported that experts predict there is a 12% chance that sometime in the next 10 years we might suffer a ‘super sun storm’ that could potentially wreck our entire electricity grid, cause $10 – 20 trillion in damage and take 4 – 10 years to recover from.

With the cyclical nature of these things, most of that 12% risk would seem to be concentrated in the next year or two, as we get closer to this cycle’s period of maximum activity.

Stay tuned for more updates.  Unless, of course, the power goes down!

May 062012
 

Scientists predict there's one chance in eight a solar storm could end the world as we know it within ten years

Here’s an interesting story from the LA Times about increased activity on/from the sun and the dangers such things pose to our comfortable life as we currently know and enjoy it.

Stated simply – solar storms can disrupt and/or destroy electrical power distribution systems, power lines, transformers, and the devices connected to them.  In today’s electricity-dependent world, none of this is good.

One point we’d disagree with – the story says :

Much of the planet’s electronic equipment, as well as orbiting satellites, have been built to withstand these periodic geomagnetic storms.

The sadly implausible nature of this claim is revealed in the very next sentence of the article, which seems to contradict the reassurance of the previous sentence :

But the world is still not prepared for a truly damaging solar storm.

There are two key things to appreciate in understanding the vulnerability to LAWKI (Life as we know it).

Solar Storms are Not New

First, solar storms are nothing new.  They occur, to greater or lesser extent, all the time.  We don’t know enough about the sun to accurately predict its ‘weather’ although we have observed some things over centuries such as the approximately 11 year cycle between periods of lesser activity and periods of greater activity, with the current cycle (the 24th since they started counting and measuring them) expected to peak in May 2013 (assuming the Mayans are wrong and the world doesn’t end in December 2012, of course!).

Note also that a period of low activity doesn’t mean no solar storms, and neither does it mean only weak solar storms.  It just means fewer solar storms, although there is still the possibility that one of the few that may occur is a really big strong one.

If you’d like to know more about this, here’s an interesting page on NASA’s site that discusses the solar cycle and the historical observations to date.  In particular, you will find more information about the effects and impact of the huge solar storm in 1859 (mentioned in the LA Times article, but in much less detail).  If you don’t bother clicking over to the NASA page, the quick headline is that the 1859 solar storm, if it occurred today, is guesstimated to cause $1 – 2 trillion in damage to our infrastructure and take 4 – 10 years to recover from.  This is 10 – 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.

The Impacts of Solar Storms Have Increased

Our second point is that our society is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the types of disruptions that a large solar storm would cause.  Solar storms, themselves, aren’t getting worse.  But the risk they pose to our society is increasing.

In 1859, electricity was rare and of little importance.  Edison’s electric light bulb wasn’t yet patented (this happened in 1879).  Electrical distribution only started in the 1880s.  Marconi wasn’t even born until 1874 so there was no radio of any sort.   The main disruptions in 1859 were to the telegraph circuits.

Today of course, sees electricity inseparable and essential in almost every part of our daily lives.  And even when we don’t directly use electricity personally, it has been used somewhere else to produce the goods and services we need and rely upon.

We got a taste of what could happen in our modern world when in 1989 a moderate solar storm caused the entire province of Quebec to lose power in 90 seconds, plunging 6 million people into a world without electricity for nine hours.  Because this happened at 2.46am local Quebec time (on Monday 13 March) this was at a time of minimal power use, which helped minimize any permanent damage, and also reduced the impact on Quebec’s population, who simply failed to wake up by any electric alarm clocks, and probably most people only experienced a conscious awareness of no power for maybe four hours or so.

A more powerful solar storm would do more than trip circuit breakers in power stations.  It would ‘fry’ transformers (ordering a new transformer typically requires three years or more of lead time until delivery is received, no-one in North America makes power transformers any more),and possibly damage or destroy power lines, and might harm all sorts of devices connected to the mains power.  The size of the transient voltages and currents caused by the solar storm could overwhelm the limited capacity of various surge protectors that many devices use as a light layer of protection.

The LA Times article says that Britain’s official assumption is that if it were to experience a storm similar to the one that wiped out Quebec’s power grid, then it would expect ‘to lose one or two regions where the power might be out for several months’.

If that’s the official stated assumption, the reality could be vastly worse, for Britain, and of course for the US too, if we were to experience a solar storm.  But even if Britain were ‘only’ to lose one or two regions, for ‘several’ months (ie probably 3 – 6 months) what would the impacts of that be on the people in those regions?  If one of those regions was London, that could mean half the country was without power for six months.  You can bet that would be life changing (as in ‘life threatening’)!

It is very hard to know exactly what the extent of damage might be.  The LA Times plays a bit of a guessing game as to the impacts on our life if there is no electricity, which is a bit like the game of ‘For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost’.

For example, no electricity means no power to drive the gas pumps at petrol stations, which means no gas or diesel for trucks or cars, which means no food deliveries, which means – well, most people prefer to pretend not to understand what that means.  Remember also that with no gas, you can’t go out into the countryside to the farms to buy food directly – and they have no gas/diesel to run their farm machinery either.  And any cool stores for, eg, apples; they’ll have lost their cooling, so all that food would be spoiling too.

Never mind food, what about water.  No power means no water pumps.  Ooops.  That means no water coming out of your taps, and with no gas for your car, any water you might get is water you’ll have to walk to find and carry back with you, all by yourself.

It also means the sewage systems stop working, too. At least that is probably survivable, albeit unpleasantly so.  But with rapidly deteriorating sanitary conditions, expect the spread of disease.  Ummmm – did we also mention that without electricity, modern hospitals will completely stop functioning.

If you’re in a multi-floor apartment building, no power means no elevators.  Again, something you’ll probably survive (unlike no food or water) but it sure is life changing.

No power means no light and no heat either – even if you have gas heat in your home, you probably use electricity for the fans that blow the air through the heater and around your house.  Alternatively, if it is summer, you’ll have no cooling.

No power means your credit cards won’t work, and you won’t be able to get money out of (or into) an ATM either.  There goes the banking system.  Not to forget, no television, no radio, no phones (neither cell phones nor landlines) and – for some of us, worst of all – no internet.

Playing with the Odds

Aaccording to this scholarly article, the possibility of an 1859 type super sun storm occurring in the next ten years are about 12%. That’s a fancy way of saying one chance in eight.  Slightly worse odds than Russian roulette with a six chamber revolver.  Who do you know who would agree to play a game of Russian roulette once every decade?  Probably no-one.

However, the same people who are terrified of guns, loaded or empty, pointed at them or safely locked away out of sight, are the same people that sneer at preppers and say there’s no chance of any risk to our modern life and society.

Here’s an amazing concept :  The chances of a TEOTWAWKI type power disruption from a super solar storm are greater than – for most people – the chances of a house fire.  But we all insure our houses, paying maybe $1000 or more a year just in case of a problem.

We could all lose our houses and still live.  It would be a financial tragedy (assuming we have substantial equity in the house) but our lives would not be risked by the loss of our house.  We’d be in a rental apartment within a few days.  We’d still have our jobs, our cars, and the rest of our lives.  In a week, we’d have bought replacement clothing, and be starting to buy the other essentials in our lives.

But the loss of electricity across our entire state or country – that does risk our lives.  After a week of no electricity, we’d be worse off, not starting our recovery.  After a month, we might be dying of starvation.

People spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars each year insuring against a risk that is less likely to occur, and which would have a much less serious impact on their lives if/when it does occur.

If it makes sense to spend $1000 a year to insure against the low risk of losing one’s house, how much should one spend a year to insure against the greater risk of a more harmful event – a solar storm destroying our power grid?