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Solar flares & CMEs: Serious threat?

  1. Aug 5, 2012 #1
    Hi, can anyone confirm or disconfirm that the information below accurate, in particular the text that I bolded? Much appreciated.

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2012 #2


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    Looks to be generally correct to me.
  4. Aug 5, 2012 #3


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    This summation appears inaccurate. The effects of solar flares are virtually instantaneous, whereas a CME requires 2-4 days to reach earth. For discussion, see http://www.breadandbutterscience.com/SSTA.pdf
  5. Aug 7, 2012 #4
    Thanks for your responses. I read the article you linked to Chronos as well as a couple of others on the same topic and, from what I understand, it appears that only coronal mass ejections are expected to pose a threat to the power grid, not solar flares, nor solar proton events (Someone please correct me if I am wrong.). But if this is the case, then the utilities will have at worst 17-18 hours to take preventative action, i.e. manually shut down the grid. So, the question is: is 17-18 hours enough time for the utilities to shut off critical electrical infrastructure? If it is, then what is all the panic about?
  6. Aug 8, 2012 #5


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    A sufficiently large flare/CME event could induce ground currents which could overload long distance electric transmission lines, even if they are shut down. The Big Fear is burning out the house-sized transformers in the system. These take years to custom design, build and install. So in the worst case, the affected region(s) could be set back to the Steam Age for awhile.

    Respectfully submitted,
  7. Aug 8, 2012 #6


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  8. Aug 8, 2012 #7
    Thanks for this important information, Dotini.

    Additionally, as I just read in another article:
    And, according to another article, "there is a one in eight chance the earth will experience a massive solar storm within the next decade."
  9. Aug 8, 2012 #8
    Thanks for the link Chronos.

    Good news for Finland and Quebec:
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  10. Aug 8, 2012 #9
    I just had a thought: in a worst case scenario, grid operators could manually disconnect the transformers from the grid (by cutting the wires and cables, or maybe there's another way) and use a faraday shield to protect them from geomagnetically induced currents. I presume that fixing the exterior wiring afterwards would not be that difficult and neither would covering the transformers with shielding material. Is this something that could be feasibly done in 17-18 hours (the fastest known arrival time for a CME), if grid operators suspected that there might be a dangerous geomagnetic storm?

    Of course, since "space weather experts still don't know which kinds of solar activity will likely cause real damage" (source), the operators might not want to preemptively compromise the grid (shutting it down and disconnecting the transformers), since doing so would be very costly (I forget the source, but, if I recall correctly, shutting down the grid would cause billions of dollars in loses).

    Any thoughts on this?
  11. Aug 9, 2012 #10


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    The House has passed this bill, but the Senate has not acted.

    One of the links you posted suggested that power grid managers are very reluctant to preemptively shut down the grid because:
    - Atomic power plants rely on the grid, and a hasty national grid shutdown might result in one or two...problems.
    - False positives in the detection of X-class flare/CME events have recently occurred in which, if the grid had been shut down, it would have been for nought.

    I, personally, would not like to be a worker on a transformer trying to disconnect continental-length powerlines while a CME is incoming!

    Last edited: Aug 9, 2012
  12. Aug 9, 2012 #11
    Exactly right. Also, consider the following:

    From a popsci.com article:
    From a globalpost.com article:
    The cost of having to preemptively shut down the power grid would far exceed the cost of implementing the Solar Shield Bill.

    I don't even think that the power grid operators would preemptively shut down the grid, for the reasons above (including the ones you mentioned) and because:
    That report is almost certainly bogus, as explained further in the same article.

    Oh, yea, and the globalpost article I cited before also states:
    Note that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would give power grid operators zero time to take preemptive measures.

    About that, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering:
    In other words, nuclear power plants in the US will remain vulnerable until 2015 (note that the solar cycle peak is in 2013) - and beyond that if the Commission decides not to act (and the power grid is not reinforced).
    I agree!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  13. Aug 9, 2012 #12


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    From one of the links just cited above, I gleaned this:

    "U.S. transformers on the average are more than 30 years old and are susceptible to internal heating, according to FERC experts. Other federal studies have revealed that the transformers have to be custom-made for local utilities and are constructed only overseas."

    Read more: http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-04-23/news/31384526_1_solar-storm-power-grid-nerc#ixzz234XAOLQ3 [Broken]

    If this is true about sole overseas manufacture of large transformers, and the warnings of the flare/CME threat to the grid are real...I must hesitate to say what I really am thinking!

    Shocked and appalled,

    Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  14. Aug 9, 2012 #13
    Transformers are indeed the weak link in our current system. It is correct that they are no longer manufactured in the US. Plus they are extremely expensive, have a lead time of many months, are are very difficult to transport and install. A few power plants have spares, but not many--certainly not enough to mitigate the hazard. One would think that these facts would be enough to prompt some form of action to protect these crucial assets--but apparently one would be wrong.
  15. Aug 9, 2012 #14
    I have been thinking of this for some time and I have been wondering why all transformers are not protected by surge arresters using MOV technology such are currently being made in the US by Cooper Power Systems for distribution lines. I think that a properly designed over voltage transient protector that could be connected to such transmission transformers to absorb the energy caused by a CME. However I don't know of any company that currently makes such surge transient protectors that are rated for power transmission lines.

    It is most likely the earth's magnetic field being distorted by the charged particles that causes the currents in the earth as well as any conductors. Even a metallic watch band might have induced currents in it due to a CME and the resulting distortion of the earth's magnetic field. Those field lines are going to do something when they cut across any conductors, and when, after the CME, they snap back.

    However no one really knows for sure what may happen for in the 1850's no one had the instrumentation to make accurate observations. The astronomer that actually observed the CME of 1859, and reported it to his peers, was considered a 'crack-pot' by the scientists of the day.
  16. Aug 14, 2012 #15
    While the threat of a CME is quite real, I don't believe that the bolded part that you highlighted is necessarily accurate, particularly the reference to 10 minutes. Most CME's produce shock waves, and many such events hit the Earth, even the largest CMEs recorded.

    That original shock wave isn't what typically produces the largest EM field hits on the surface of the Earth however. That large EM hit at the surface of the Earth comes from the dense plasma wave that follows the original shock wave. When that dense plasma wave hits the magnetosphere, then we experience the real magnetic field variations at the surface of the Earth. The magnetosphere is dense enough to protect us quite well from the original shock wave IMO (not necessarily the satellites in space however), but the dense wave of plasma that comes from the CME can overwhelm the magnetosphere.


    The Carrington Super Flare event was originally seen about 17 hours before the main event hit the Earth. That event was likely a "direct shot", right at the Earth. In all probability we would have about that same period of time (17 hours) to shut down the power grids on Earth. That would be a monumental feat to shut everything down in 17 hours, but it could be done. It wouldn't require everyone react within 10 minutes however. :)

    It is true though that the original shock wave can reach the Earth in as quickly as 10-15 minutes. While our atmosphere and magnetosphere offer us protection from such events, that isn't true for an astronaut in space or on the moon. Anyone in space would be in danger from such an event, and they would have to react quickly to take cover from such an event.

    Last edited: Aug 14, 2012
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