Thursday, January 04, 2007

The day the world will stop

On Sept. 1, 1859, the Earth was immersed in a magnetic storm the likes of which could cause a power outage equal or greater than the Aug. 14, 2003 blackout. Compared to the large space storms, known as superstorms, which occurred during the recent solar cycles, the 1859 storm was ten times stronger. At that time, aurora, commonly called northern lights, were seen as far south as Rome and Havana and it disrupted telegraph communication, then an indispensable technology, world-wide.

Today there will be disruption to satellites some with permanent damage,(during the December event 2 satellites received instrument damage.Mobile phones will be inoperative as systems go down,energy grids will be disrupted sometimes for months dependent on secondary systems.Radio and television will be disrupted due to accelerated inonisation.

In scientific circles where solar flares, magnetic storms and other unique solar events are discussed, the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the star stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth's inhabitants realized something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth's North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.

What happened in 1859 was a combination of several events that occurred on the Sun at the same time. If they took place separately they would be somewhat notable events. But together they caused the most potent disruption of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history. "What they generated was the perfect space storm," says Bruce Tsurutani, a plasma physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

What transpired during the dog days of summer 1859, across the 150 million-kilometer (about 93 million-mile) chasm of interplanetary space that separates the Sun and Earth, was this: on August 28, solar observers noted the development of numerous sunspots on the Sun's surface. Sunspots are localized regions of extremely intense magnetic fields. These magnetic fields intertwine, and the resulting magnetic energy can generate a sudden, violent release of energy called a solar flare. From August 28 to September 2 several solar flares were observed. Then, on September 1, the Sun released a mammoth solar flare. For almost an entire minute the amount of sunlight the Sun produced at the region of the flare actually doubled.

"With the flare came this explosive release of a massive cloud of magnetically charged plasma called a coronal mass ejection," said Tsurutani. "Not all coronal mass ejections head toward Earth. Those that do usually take three to four days to get here. This one took all of 17 hours and 40 minutes," he noted.

Back in 1859 the invention of the telegraph was only 15 years old and society's electrical framework was truly in its infancy. A 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada. Other storms have affected systems ranging from cell phone service and TV signals to GPS systems and electrical power grids.

Such a blackout is also likely to cause transient voltage stresses and permanent damage to network equipment such as high-voltage breakers, transformers, and generation plants, which makes them unavailable for restoring power. Hours or days may pass before power can be restored. Oak Ridge National Laboratory assessed the potential impact of a widespread blackout in the northeastern United States from a geomagnetic storm event slightly more severe than the March 1989 blackout as a $3–6 billion loss in gross domestic product. This figure does not account for the potential disruption of critical services such as transportation, fire protection, and public security. Other assessments placed the 1989 and 1991 geomagnetic storm effects in a category equivalent to Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake in their relative impact on the reliability of the electric power grid.

There is a good technical perspective here.


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