30 January 2014
On January 9, 2014, we were expecting a light-show from space and, maybe, some electrical problems, but we didn’t get much of either. The familiar Aurora Borealis was the expected light-show. But if auroras are familiar, they aren’t frequent, at least not in most of the continental United States. So, it’s a big deal for residents of most of the 48 states when the light-show dips down far enough to provide one of those rare opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis.
The aurora was visible, but over a much more limited area. One commentator was puzzled by the problem saying, “We could see it in Norway.” And I bet they could. Even weak auroras are visible in, or near, the Arctic Circle, but it takes quite a solar flare, of a certain type, to treat people in the temperate zone to a good show. Some were so disappointed that they were hoping for the development of a “geomagnetic storm.” Do we want a geomagnetic storm? Well, the hardcore aurora watchers might. Although these storms have little effect on human beings, they can wreak havoc with our toys – electronics.
Normally, when I think of a storm, I think of something in the earth’s atmosphere. It’s all about high and low pressure, moisture, dryness, heat and cold. But geomagnetic storms are a different animal. And “aurora watchers” watch the “space weather” forecasts. They were disappointed when the “magnitude of the impact” was “downgraded.” This all needs some explaining.
There is a constant flow of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space. This “solar wind” affects the whole solar system. As a matter of fact, the sun is source of all of this kind of“wind” in the solar system. The energy from the sun, moving through the solar system is what is called “space weather.” There’s more than “wind.” There’s also a sort of “lightening” called solar flares. And, then, there’s a special type of solar flare called a CME, coronal mass ejection. If the sun’s out-flowing energy were a sea, a CME would be a tsunami.
The sun has spots – sunspots that are like caps trapping a lot of pent-up energy below the surface. When the energy builds past a certain point, the cap blows off, and a CME shoots into space. Unlike most solar flares, CME’s can be seen leaving the sun through telescopes on earth. Like all flares, CME’s blow out of the sun in all directions. Thankfully, very, very few are aimed at us.
As the flow of the regular solar “wind” hits the earth’s magnetic field, it produces visible auroras at both the North and South Poles. The aurora at the North Pole is appropriately named “the Northern Lights.” With stunning (and, today, rare) logic, the aurora at the South Pole is named “the Southern Lights.”
But when a CME comes along, like one we were expecting on January 9th, the show really gets rolling. The steady solar wind changes into a blast of charged particles that is so strong that it extends the earth’s magnetic field stretching it farther and farther into space. If you could see the earth’s magnetic field, when a CME hits, it would look like the tail of comet. The magnetic field will stretch and stretch until, suddenly, the field snaps-back. This “snap-back” discharges a lot of electrical energy into the earth’s atmosphere. Then, the stretch and snap-back happens — again and again — until the earth’s atmosphere becomes saturated with electrical potential.
Then, the aurora, usually limited to the Arctic Circle, extends southward getting bigger and brighter. But as we’re watching the show, the earth’s atmosphere is becoming charged with electricity. This isn’t a problem for human beings, but it can damage electrical equipment. How? Well, the atmosphere becomes so electrically supercharged that it becomes conductive. In other words, electricity doesn’t have to stay in the wires. It can flow out of the wires, through the atmosphere, and directly to ground. The manufacturers of electrical equipment didn’t intend for electricity to behave that way.
Radios and telephones can stop working. Electrical equipment that is “turned off” can be turned on by the electricity flowing through the air. Engines can stall. Power stations and transformer overloads can cause shorts and blackouts. All sorts of electrical equipment can suffer serious damage.
And NASA forecasters were predicting a strong geomagnetic storm January 9th and 10th, with a risk of electrical problems. This never materialized. But if it had, we would have been, more or less, prepared. One of the nice things about CME’s is that they can be seen from earth as they leave the sun. Beginning its journey at a leisurely 7,000,000 miles and hour, a CME takes 2 to 3 days reach earth. That means we get 2 to 3 days warning before it strikes.
Strangely, no one took the dangers too seriously until March of 1989 when a CME disrupted Quebec, Canada’s electrical power grid. On March 9th of that year, aurora watchers were having a good old time as the Northern Lights stretched out of the Arctic Circle and blazed as far south as Texas and Florida. At first, some serious short-wave radio interference developed. When signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia were disrupted, there were Cold War fears of an impending nuclear strike.
By midnight, several satellites were experiencing difficulties with electrical malfunctions and false electrical readings. The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission, experienced an alarming false reading from a pressure sensor during the storm that simply disappeared as soon as the “wave” past.
Then, Quebec, Canada’s circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure. Since that time, a lot of special procedures have been developed to deal with CME’s. Again, the advanced warning and predictable arrival time makes preparation much easier. Still, we need expensive high-tech protective shielding to for all of our electrical equipment – great and small. Don’t we?
There’s even a “down and dirty” method of dealing with the effects of an intensely charged atmosphere. Turn everything electrical off. You still might get some interesting effects from, and through, your electrical equipment, but no permanent damage. You can just wait out the storm and “restore” you own private power grid to operation when the danger is over.