Thursday, August 9, 2012

The latest Solar Storm (of junk reporting...)

Well, Reuters, that bastion of scientific accuracy has done it again. </irony>

Citing a National Academy of Sciences report on the potential damage from Solar Storms, Reuters reported last week that "A monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid..."



Geomagnetic particles?   Geomagnetic particles from the sun?  OK, I'll turn off the irony machine.

Amateur physicists aside, what the article barely mentions is that the NAS report describes some relatively simple and inexpensive steps, like reconfiguring transformers or adding protective equipment, that according to the report greatly reduce the problem.

I should note that the Reuters story doesn't actually include a citation for the NAS report.  (In fairness, I'm still digging up the citation myself.)  It's not easy to find, since it was issued in 2008.  Yes, this was news 4 years ago, and people working in the field have been developing solutions to the potential problem ever since.

What is news, or at least more timely news, is that NASA has developed the capability to spot solar storms, plot their course, and predict what equipment will be impacted, whether earthbound or in space.

Quoting that article:
Some of the computer models are so sophisticated, they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes.  These currents are what do the most damage to power transformers.  An experimental project named "Solar Shield" led by [Antti] Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.

"Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts," says Pulkkinen.
 In short, we're pretty close to being able to do something about this other than wringing our hands and claiming that "The End Is Near".  We're close to this being an inconvenience, instead of a disaster.

But inconvenience doesn't sell advertising space.

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