Massive solar flare sparks solar storm; possible threat to power grid, computers

Disruptions to power grids, satellite navigation systems and computer systems feared

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

On June 7, 2011 the US Space Administration (NASA) registered the strongest solar storm since 2006 and it is feared that it could affect systems on Earth.

The most benign effect assumed will be increases aurora activities, that is to say it should be possible to witness awesome polar lights.

Other effects, on the other hand, which would be far from benign, could be damage to satellites, interruptions and other problems by the transmission of satellite communication and data, such as GPS, because of an increased mass of electrons in the ionosphere. Disruptions to power- and communications networks through induction are also possible.

While this event was bad enough, so to speak, space-weather experts are concerned about future solar events.

The sun's 11-year cycle of activity, driven by tangled surface magnetic fields, will hit its maximum in late 2013 or early 2014. Magnetic messiness will peak around that time and prompt nasty solar storms.

We will, however, probably see [extreme] flares every couple of months instead of years and if one of these powerful flares – and its coronal mass ejection – faces Earth, the particles will pound satellite components with charged particles, short some out, and potentially cripple them.

On the planet's surface, extra currents of solar particles drive extra electric current through power lines and heat them up. A solar storm in 1859, for example, caused telegraph lines to burst into flames. Power companies distribute loads to avoid such a disaster, but energetic solar storms could still blow transformers and lead to power outages, especially during heat waves like the one sweeping the eastern U.S. this week.

"Despite great countermeasures, the power grid is still vulnerable and we could be in for some serious problems, and not just, as if this were not bad enough, as regards the power grid. Communications, which today more often than not rely on satellites also could be severely crippled and impossible for days, if not longer.

This also could seriously effect and impact on aviation and maritime traffic as all communications, nowadays, are dependent on satellites, as does the navigational systems of aircraft and ships.

Yet another proof, if any more proof would be needed, that we have become too reliant and dependent on vulnerable high-tech equipment which could be put out of action by electromagnetic pulse and fields.

Individual computer centers could be secured by use of a Faraday cage and the same could, probably, be achieved for the PC at home, but the problem is that the Internet, the system of communication that we have become so dependent upon, and that includes me, as I am no Luddite, can and will suffer under such “attacks.”

So far, as time of writing, several days after the event on the sun, nothing awful seems to have happened so far but, as some scientists stated, it could be several days before the impact could be felt with all power.

This may, on the other hand, just be a “shot across the bow” and should be used as a wakeup call to harden our critical infrastructure systems and the Net is part of that critical infrastructure.

© 2011