Recent solar flare activity once again has weather experts and scientists uttering words of warning about a power grid failure. Should the electrical grid collapse, the food supply would immediately halt and civil unrest would likely occur in just three days.
A reversal in the Sun’s polarity has led to an increase in solar activity, and in the past several weeks, nearly 30 solar flares have occurred. A few months ago scientists agreed that the magnetic field around the Sun was in the process of a “polarity reversal,” according to an Accuweather report. The process normally occurs when the Sun approaches the peak of its solar cycle.
The potential for an Earth-directed X-class solar flare to take down America’s antiquated and overly-taxed power grid is significant. Infrastructure frailties are not a glitzy topic; they are far too mundane for mainstream media to venture away from the latest political scandal to discuss, but they are nevertheless important.
America is not prepared for a massive solar flare, and barely dodged one in 2012 that could have ended life as we know it for weeks or months, according to a University of Colorado scientist who specializes in solar storm research.
“My space weather colleagues believe that until we have an event that slams Earth and causes complete mayhem, policymakers are not going to pay attention,” Dr. Daniel Baker said. “The message we are trying to convey is that we made direct measurements of the 2012 event and saw the full consequences without going through a direct hit on our planet.” Baker gave a presentation on the subject at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco earlier this month. He is the director of the University of Colorado Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics.
The power grid likely would not survive a direct hit by what scientists call a coronal mass ejection, or CME, according to a report by Off The Grid News. America was hit once by such a CME, although it took place in 1859, before electricity lines stretched across the nation. Called the Carrington Event, the CME that year lit up the night sky from the North Pole to Central America, and some New Englanders even read their newspapers outside, as if it was daytime. More significantly, it took out telegraph machines – the most advanced technology of the time. Baker and his colleagues say the 2012 CME was even more powerful than the 1859 one.
Baker had this to say about the fragility of the power grid:
“Had it hit Earth, the July 2012 event likely would have created a technological disaster by short-circuiting satellites, power grids, ground communication equipment and even threatening the health of astronauts and aircraft crews.”
A Royal Academy of Engineering report released earlier this year urged UK officials to create a space weather board to enhance “solar superstorm” planning. The same entity also called for a space weather warning system that would alert the public about potentially dangerous radiation spawned by such events.
An excerpt from the power grid report:
“These environmental challenges [solar flares] can cause detrimental effects to the electricity grid, satellites, avionics, air passengers, signals from satellite navigation systems, mobile telephones and more. They have consequently been identified as a risk to the world economy and society.”
A National Resource Council report Dr. Baker co-authored in 2008 stated that high-energy particles released by a massive solar flare would possibly disrupt communications, the economy, and transportation. The Colorado scientists also accurately noted that the food supply would become limited rather quickly, along with limited to no access to medications and clean drinking water. It further read:
“The adverse effects of extreme space weather on modern technology–power grid outages, high-frequency communication blackouts, spacecraft anomalies–are well known and well documented, and the physical processes underlying space weather are also generally well understood. Less well documented and understood, however, are the potential economic and societal impacts of the disruption of critical technological systems by severe space weather.”
The SHIELD Act was introduced by US Representative Trent Franks to help bolster the power grid and prevent a power grid disaster in the wake of something like a CME. HR3410 is referred to as CIPA or the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. If passed, the legislation would amend the Homeland Security Act by mandating that an EMP attack be considered a vital part of Department of Homeland Security national emergency planning scenarios. But the legislation has been stalled in Congress for years, prompting Franks to pen a new version of the bi-partisan supported bill to spur increased attention and hopefully movement on the pending bill.
Representative Trent Franks said this about the SHIELD Act:
“It is critical that we protect our major transformers from cascading destruction. The SHIELD Act encourages industry to develop standards necessary to protect our electric infrastructure against both natural and man-made EMP events.”
The power grid protection bill has bipartisan support, but a vote on the potentially life-saving legislation has yet to be called. The electric utility industry has not reportedly shown any interest in spending time and money on the repairs and upgrades necessary to protect the power grid. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is the entity that represents utility industry partners and is tasked with protecting the bulk of power transmissions on the electrical grid. The catch 22 for the safety-focused group revolves around the fact that the federal government currently lacks the authority to mandate local utility companies to institute EMP and related protections for the power grid.
Baker had this to say about the 2012 event:
“The speed of this event was as fast or faster than anything that has been seen in the modern space age. The event not only had the most powerful CME ever recorded, but it would have triggered one of the strongest geomagnetic storms and the highest density of particle fluctuation ever seen in a typical solar cycle, which lasts roughly 11 year. The Carrington storm and the 2012 event show that extreme space weather events can happen even during a modest solar cycle like the one presently underway. Rather than wait and pick up the pieces, we ought to take lessons from these events to prepare ourselves for inevitable future solar storms.”