January 22, 2009

SOMETHING ELSE TO WORRY ABOUT: Severe Space Weather:

Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?

That’s the surprising conclusion of a NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. In the 132-page report, experts detailed what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a “super solar flare” followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm. They found that almost nothing is immune from space weather—not even the water in your bathroom.

The problem begins with the electric power grid. “Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend,” the report notes. Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours.

Grids are apparently more vulnerable. This is basically like an EMP attack from nature; systems should be hardened up against both, in my opinion, and made more resilient in the event of failure. I’ve had some thoughts on that in the past. If they’re looking for a place to spend “stimulus” money, this kind of system-hardening would at least make more sense than the outright pork that will probably wind up getting the cash.

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