Coming solar storms could wreak holy havoc on Earth
San Francisco Examiner, December 27, 1998
If you thought San Francisco's mega-blackout was bad, just wait until mid-2000, when our old friend the sun turns against us. Like Norman Bates in "Psycho," the sun goes a little crazy now and then by hurling million-degree fireballs and star-sized, electrically charged clouds toward Earth. Its next celestial fit is likely in mid-2000 - possibly even next summer - and could bring continent-sized power outages, global cell-phone screw-ups and other techno-mishaps that could make the Dec. 8 blackout look like a burned-out refrigerator light bulb. "We're more vulnerable (to such electrical cataclysms) than we used to be because of the increasing interconnection of society," warns solar physicist Don J. Michels of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He is one of many scientists who study the sun's 11-year bouts of manic-depressive behavior.
Consider the new power grids used by deregulated utilities seeking cheap electric power. The lines extend thousands of miles, linking Canadian hydroelectric dams to Southern California. "The bigger they are, the harder they fall," goes an old saying - and nothing illustrates that better than these super-long power lines, which could go as dead as dried noodles during a big solar "storm." The results? Imagine being stuck in a Muni tunnel for hours or eating melted ice cream from an on-the-blink fridge - all because the sun has just undergone one of its periodic nervous breakdowns. Its next peak of violence - technically known as "solar maximum" - is expected in mid-2000. But the breakdown has already started: "In the last two years, you can easily see an increase in solar activity. The (solar) magnetic field lines are breaking apart," says Steve Hill, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
NASA and the Defense Department are scrambling to launch satellites that can give advance warning of incoming solar storms. The military is especially concerned because of the possible failure of reconnaissance satellites - the ones that watch Saddam Hussein's troops, for example - during a military engagement. Other scientists hope to better understand the sun's structure and behavior by launching satellites such as HESSI, the High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, now being designed at UC-Berkeley. Planned for launch in mid-2000, during Solar Maximum, HESSI will study X-rays and gamma rays from solar flares and "coronal mass ejections," vast clouds of ionized (electrically charged) particles, says Jay Trimble, HESSI integration test manager.
On reaching Earth, the particles warp Earth's magnetic field. The field gyrations induce electrical currents in power lines that can short-circuit them. The longer the line, the greater the electrical surge - so long-distance power lines are especially vulnerable. A consortium of scientific agencies is trying to spread the word about the coming threat from what they call "solar weather." At the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Boulder, Colo.-based Space Science Institute and others distributed a slick, colorful brochure that begins: "The Forecast? Look for Storms, Gale-Force Winds, and Plasma Blobs." ( "Plasma" refers to clouds of electrons and ionized particles.)
A harbinger of what may come during Solar Maximum occurred in May, when a powerful solar storm tripled and quadrupled electrical currents in the ionosphere, the thick envelope of ionized air overhead, says researcher Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado. The greater the electrical current, the greater the risk to sensitive electronic gear, communications systems, power lines and other societal infrastructure. The Dec. 8 outage, which afflicted much of the Peninsula and nearly all of San Francisco, was caused by humans, not by the sun. But "that is the kind of thing that makes the concern about solar events seem real," Michels says. "When one substation goes down, it ripples through the whole system." The solar breakdown might come sooner than expected - perhaps as early as the middle of next year, says U.S. Air Force scientist Richard C. Altrock. He expects the solar storms to peak in mid-1999, a year earlier than other forecasts, based on his observations of a solar phenomenon whimsically known as the "Rush to the Poles," he said at the American Geophysical Union meeting.
At a solar observatory in Arizona, Altrock has observed solar gases rich in ionized iron steadily flowing toward the sun's north and south poles. Such flows have preceded the last two solar maximums by an average of 15 to 17 months, he says. The current "rush" began in February 1997, he says, suggesting solar maximum could come as early as the summer of 1999. Whenever the sun reaches maximum violence, he adds, the show is starting: "Already we're starting to (detect) quite large (solar) flares and mass ejections that are impacting our Earth."