Date: July 9, 2011
Title: Solar Cosmic Katrina and Chicken Little
Podcaster: Sandy Antunes
Organization: Project Calliope LLC.
Description: Solar activity can and will short out portions of our power grid, but predicting them is inexact. Would you rather space weathercasting be like Chicken Little, warning the sky is falling with too many false alarms, or should we stay quiet and miss the chance to warn you for a solar ‘Cosmic Katrina’ event.
Bio: Dr. Sandy is launching a personal science/music satellite at projectCalliope.com and writes twice/weekly at Science2.0.
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Here’s a fable from Dr. Sandy Antunes, the Daytime Astronomer.
Once upon a time, there was a solar chicken. Well, a solar astronomer chicken.
This chicken watched the sun, and every 11 years, she noticed that the Sun got more and more active.
All the other farm animals thought that was a neat bit of scientific trivia, then ignored it.
11 years, 22 years ago, ignoring it was okay. That’s because the cows didn’t have cell phones in their barn, and the pigs didn’t chomp their corn with the help of satellite weather predictions.
Heck, most of those chickens didn’t even get pay-per-view satellite television. Primitive chickens.
But this chicken, now she was worried. All the other farm animals were more reliant on technology.
Also, they got their electricity from a really large network of transformers and wires. Any power system is a really, really big antenna that can burn out if the sun throws off a really potent solar event.
So this chicken began to warn everyone that, during the next big solar cycle in 2012-2014 or so, there is a huge chance of a big solar event that would kill their power, cripple their weather prediction ability, and generally mess with satellites too.
The smart farm animals hemmed and hawed about the cost, and asked _when_ would it happen. The chicken said “I don’t know when, yet.” So they said “well, you let us know.”
Then a coronal mass ejection (or CME) erupted on the sun, aimed at Earth, with an expected impact over North America in 3 days! The chicken cried ‘the sky is falling’, and everyone panicked!
But the CME had the wrong polarity, and nothing bad happened. Everyone was so angry, they cooked and ate the poor astro-chicken.
Then one month later, another earth-bound CME occurred, and it has the right polarity, so when it hit our ionosphere it caused enough Geomagnetic Induced Currents (or GICs) that the entire power grid shorted out, and the farm lost power for years and lots of animals died and life really sucked for everyone.
And everyone said, it’s the fault of that darn chicken, for making the wrong prediction earlier.
Not one farm animal said, hey, the chicken told us it was hard to guess.
So what do you do if you’re predicting space weather events that could– might– cause a catastrophe, but that also might not? Are we solar physicists chicken littles or genuine space weathercasters?
Congresswoman Clarke at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum noted that “the likelihood of a geomagnetic storm that will disrupt the electrical grid is 100%. 100% [she emphasized]. It will happen. It is just a matter of when.”
Now, the cost to protect our basic electric grid from this is from 75 to 150 million dollars. That’s it, that’s less than 1% of the cost it would take to weather a solar ‘Cosmic Katrina’ event that will- that will– come.
If we don’t protect our grid, then, now, the Space Weather ‘Session 2’ noted that 300 tranformers will blow under such an event, leaving 130 million people out of power– for years. The industry doesn’t build or stockpile these enormous transformers.
Speaker John added that the “replacement of transformers could be 4 to 10 years out at current world production levels.” GIC (or Geomagnetic Induced Current) cause flow in transformers that can cause power grid blackouts and can cause permanent grid damage. This is seen as a new problem in part because power grids have experienced ‘a design creep that has increased their vunerability.’
David J. from StormCenter notes that, at our current predictive state of the art, you can alert that ‘there’s something happening on the sun today, that you’re not sure what’ll happen, and then you can do a follow-up. And that that’s probably the wisest way to avoid ‘Chicken Little’ events.
As one participant was overhead to say, “until everyone stops jockeying around for their piece of the pie, no one is going to do anything.”
Heck, how often are weathercasters correct with their predictions of storms, hurricanes, tornados?
And the answer is they may predict more things then that actually happen. It’s more important that when something bad happens, you had a hint it was coming. You cannot ‘not predict’ an event.
In short, we need to be able to handle ‘false space weather alarms’ without panicking. We need to harden our electrical grid for the inevitable event. And we need awareness at the agency and at the public level. From this comes policy, and policy leads to action.
But we have to hurry. Not hurry to be scared, but hurry to be prepared.
Do you mind, say, 3 “Chicken Littles” for each “Cosmic Katrina”?
This is Dr. Sandy Antunes, the Daytime Astronomer, signing off. You can see my space weather experimental work at ProjectCalliope.com.
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365 Days of Astronomy
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Put me down as skeptical about the transformer-loss scenario. Has anyone bothered to note how many transformers are lost to lightning/natural disasters every year? I think we lose a half-dozen a year within a ten mile radius of me, and I pass truckloads of the things while driving on the interstate.