Our Sun is emerging from an unusually deep solar minimum. That is when the sunspot, solar storm, and solar flare activity are at their lowest levels in the sun’s eleven year cycle. This is significant, because it means we are now entering one of the most active solar maximums in recent history. Solar Maximum is when the sun reaches its peak in its cycle for sunspot, solar storm, and solar flare activity. That means bad news for the survival of our society’s electronics, satellites, and power grids.
Why does this Solar Maximum spell certain disaster for our way of life? In addition to the increased solar activity, expected during the upcoming solar maximum, the Earth’s magnetic field has two holes in it that allow particles streaming out from the sun to breach this shield. Because the solar particles are electrically charged, they are usually deflected by Earth’s magnetic field during a solar storm. Our magnetic field, however, is a leaky shield and the number of particles breaching it is about twenty times more than normal. The Earth’s thermosphere has also collapsed to an unusually low level. It always cools and contracts when solar activity is low, however, the magnitude of the collapse was two to three times greater than low solar activity could explain during the last solar minimum. John Emmet of the Navel Research Lab, states “something is going on that we do not understand”. Normally the thermosphere, which ranges in altitude from about 54-360 miles, intercepts extreme ultraviolet photons (EUV) from the sun before they can reach the ground. As solar activity increases, solar EUV warms the thermosphere, causing it to expand, or puff up like a marshmallow over an open fire. This heating can raise temperatures to as high as 1400 K—hence the name thermosphere. It has begun expanding again, but it has a huge deficit to recover from, allowing EUV much closer to the ground than usual.
Since the beginning of the space age the overall length of high-voltage power lines spanning North America, has increased nearly ten times. This has effectively turned our power grids into a giant antenna for geomagnetically induced currents produced when we get hit by Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s). In a report put out in 2009 by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the US Departments of Energy, in regards to our modern power systems they concluded there is a “significantly enhanced vulnerability and exposure to effects of a severe geomagnetic storm.”
Think about all of the things in our daily lives we take for granted like Television, GPS, Internet, and Cell Phones. We are dependent upon electricity for our survival. A CME, or solar storm could knock out the national power grids, which provide electricity for all of our modern technology. The survival of our satellites, and communications could also be at risk. This in essence could turn our way of life back about 100 years, as the resulting blackouts could last for months or much longer! John Kappenman, CEO of Electromagnetic damage consulting company, points out that when our high voltage transformers blow, they can’t be fixed in the field. In many cases they can’t be fixed at all. The wait time right now to order and receive a new transformer is one to three years. So imagine how long it could take to replace most or all of the transformers in the nation if we get hit by a massive CME. To protect our high voltage transformers from the effects of a solar storm, huge resistors could be installed and attached to each one. It may be too late, however, to protect enough of our transforms to save our power grids.
Based on the preceding solar cycles, the current Solar Maximum should occur late 2012- early 2013. Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is forecasting the Solar Maximum to peak in 2012. Solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center (NSSTC), however, believes it will arrive sooner. History shows that big sunspot cycles ‘ramp up’ faster than small ones.
You may be asking questions like: “What steps is our government taking to prepare for a massive solar storm or CME?” “Is this threat real?” “How do I prepare my family for survival of an event like this?” We will answer these questions and more in part three of our four part series. So stay tuned.