Solar storms are a real possibility, according to Eric Waage, director of Hennepin County Emergency Management.
“I think that people who run utilities and plan for disasters really need to have this on their radar,” said Waage. “But I think that most utilities (at least in the northern U.S. and Canada) are very aware of the solar storm threat. The issue is that all-hazard emergency responders and planners for government jurisdictions — folks like me — may not be aware, if at all, about solar storms and the level of disruption that they could cause.”
The Space Hazard Monitor project is evolving into the MagStar magnetometer array, which will involve the expansion of the network. Like the Space Hazard Monitor program, the MagStar program is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Presently, there are six sites around the country that are being measured besides the current Space Hazard Monitor site that Hennepin County hosts in east central Minnesota, including locations in Texas, Illinois, West Virginia, Connecticut and Maine. The new MagStar Array would add additional sites in northern Minnesota, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Vermont.
“There are two different sensors that are part of each SHM site,” said Waage. “One is a geomagnetic-induced current sensor, and the other is a magnetometer. The GIC sensor measures the surface electric field that has the potential to enter and flow through human-built conductive infrastructure, such as pipelines, power lines and communications cables. The magnetometer measures the Earth’s magnetic field at that location.”
It’s important to remember that solar activity runs along an approximately 11-year cycle. According to Waage, our sun just passed through its “solar minimum” activity level between Solar Cycle 24 and 25 and is now slowly increasing. The size and impact of solar storms varies widely. Solar storms do not cause physical damage, except to some kinds of electronic equipment.
“In fact, the thing that makes understanding solar storms a bit more difficult from an emergency management standpoint is the lack of much historical data on their frequency and magnitude,” said Waage. “Since impact reports are tied to the impacts on electronics, before humans used electricity, they would not have noticed solar storms, except for the huge displays of northern and southern lights that accompany them. So, unlike records of earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and other natural hazards that leave physical evidence and also include accounts from ancient historians, there is no such rich and deep history for solar storms.
“It was not until the invention of the telegraph and other electronic devices in the mid-1800s that solar storms really mattered. With only a small timeline of historical record, we don’t really know how bad a solar storm can get or how often a big storm takes place. The current benchmark for the worst solar storm is held by the 1859 Carrington Event. Lots of damages and disruption of the world’s newly created telegraph network happened in 1859. Back then, electrical equipment was simple and robust compared to today’s complex and microchip-dominated electronics. In 1859 there was no power grid to disrupt.”
Today, grids can be vulnerable to solar currents that would flow along power lines and damage or disrupt transformers and control systems. There have been many studies regarding what might happen if Earth were hit again by a Carrington-size event. Most predict long-term power outages and severe disruptions in modern systems that depend on electricity, such as communications, finance, energy and so on. A Carrington-size event missed hitting Earth by just a few days in 2012. The rotation of the sun itself, and the travel of Earth in orbit around the sun, make solar storm events a complex set of shooting gallery-like factors that determine whether we get hit or the burst gets harmlessly hurled out into space.
“We got very lucky in 2012,” said Waage, “and most people on Earth were oblivious to just how close we came to finding out what a Carrington-size event would do to our 2020 electronic infrastructure.”
Asked how he himself came to an interest in the topic, Waage said he has a professional interest in solar storms and the severe disruption they could cause.
“As part of my responsibility to identify, assess and monitor all hazards that could impact Hennepin County, I decided to attend a solar hazard conference in Colorado,” said Waage. “While there, I listened to a presentation that Jennifer Gannon made about the Space
Hazard Monitor Network and noticed that there were no sensors in our region of the United States. I have a professional background in geology, and so I knew that the particular rocks under Minnesota and our northerly geomagnetic latitude made our part of the U.S. susceptible to solar storms. By coincidence, my department (Hennepin County Emergency Management) was already developing a network of weather and soil monitoring stations to aid us in providing faster, more localized indications of imminent threats.”
Waage then offered Gannon space at one of the Hennepin West Mesonet sites near St. Bonifacious, Minn. Waage’s department won’t be forecasting solar storms, as its employees don’t have the expertise; however, they want to support agencies that do.
“Solar storm predictions, alerts and warnings come from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Space Weather Prediction Center,” said Waage. “Currently, from my vantage point, as the emergency manager for a major urban county, the prediction and warning system does a pretty good job of observing threatening activity on the sun itself and can detect solar storms as they come toward earth. The system also provides good warning of impacts to satellites and global communications networks.”
Where the system is weakest, Waage said, is in regard to providing localized impact prediction. Typical warnings today might speak of a solar hazard that may impact the “sunlit side of the earth above 50 degrees geomagnetic latitude,” for instance. The area described in such warnings is massive and does not give local authorities and utility operators much to convert into their own regional context.
“Once solar energy hits the basement rocks of the Earth, lots of local variations come into play, which tends to transmit, channel or focus this energy in ways that can’t be described in the current
warnings,” observed Waage. “The idea of networks like the Space Hazard Monitoring Network, and its followup MagStar magnetometer array, is that providing monitors across the regions that are susceptible to solar storms (will enable us to) get the data needed to predict solar storm behavior in local rocks. Such data will provide actionable information to those in a position to protect our electrical grid from damage and disruption.”
Protecting the grid is likely the best humanity can hope for given the sheer size of solar storms.
“The massive energy involved coming from the sun dwarfs any human ability to block or deflect it on a planetary scale,” said Waage. “Hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes are tiny compared to the energy in a solar storm. Similar to these Earth hazards, though, the human response is to take prudent actions to avoid harm because we are not going to be able to stop the solar storm from arriving. Unlike an asteroid, which scientists have discussed ways of deflecting, solar storm energy is a mass of plasma that is not susceptible to being physically knocked off course by a human-induced push or explosion.
“Great strides have been made in observing the sun, detecting the start of solar storms, determining arrival time and describing the regions of the Earth where the energy will strike; less attention has been paid to understanding what happens to this energy once it descends into the bedrock and begins to be channeled and concentrated in especially hazardous ways. This is how state and local emergency managers will be able to put a more defined geographic face on this hazard. This is what is needed to make specific investments or take more detailed preparatory actions at state and local levels.”
The foremost goal of emergency management is prevention and mitigation measures that enable his office to protect critical infrastructure systems from threats. Better to invest in preventing or lessening a disaster than to deal with the much bigger losses and costs afterward.
“Regarding the 2012 Carrington event, which was a close escape, scientists, utility officials and emergency managers, however, appreciated the chance to have some more time to gather more data and refine our ability to protect ourselves from solar storms,” concluded Waage. “It is only a matter of time before we will take another solar storm hit. We need to learn and prepare wisely.”