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Protecting grid from cataclysmic solar storm

When the last really big solar storm hit Earth in 1921, the Sun ejected a burst of plasma and magnetic structures like Zeus hurling a thunderbolt from Mount Olympus.
February 12, 2017
Space weather begins with an eruption such as a huge burst of light and radiation called a solar flare or a gigantic cloud of solar material called a coronal mass ejection. These bursts of plasma often travel toward Earth, where radioactive particles interact with the planet’s magnetic field and can disrupt the electric grid.

Space weather begins with an eruption such as a huge burst of light and radiation called a solar flare or a gigantic cloud of solar material called a coronal mass ejection. These bursts of plasma often travel toward Earth, where radioactive particles interact with the planet’s magnetic field and can disrupt the electric grid. CREDIT: NASA

Science on the Hill: Protecting grid from cataclysmic solar storm

by Jesse Woodroffe and Michael Rivera

When the last really big solar storm hit Earth in 1921, the Sun ejected a burst of plasma and magnetic structures like Zeus hurling a thunderbolt from Mount Olympus. Earth’s magnetic field funneled a wave of electrically charged particles toward the ground, where they induced a current along telegraph lines and railroad tracks that set fire to telegraph offices and burned down train stations. As ghostly curtains of Northern Lights danced far south over the eastern United States, the fledgling electric grid flickered and went dark.

Almost a century later, today’s grid is bigger, more interconnected and even more susceptible to a solar storm disaster. No one knows exactly how susceptible, but one recent peer-reviewed study found that an epic solar, or geomagnetic, storm could cost the United States more than $40 billion in damages and lost productivity.

Most geomagnetic storms are harmless. They regularly lash across Earth after a coronal mass ejection sprays electrons, protons and other charged particles from the Sun. If they’re aimed just right, a few days later Earth’s magnetic field snares them. They accelerate and light up in another brilliant — and harmless — display of Northern Lights (or Southern Lights below the equator).

This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.


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