Nov 3, 2011; 9:46 AM ET
Still recovering here in the office from the major nor’easter that struck the Northeast hard over the weekend. I kind of needed a few days to recover from that storm, plus I needed more time to research for this blog, and that is why I have not written anything recently.
In my last blog, the subject of possible disruption of global communications was discussed. I wanted to right this blog to describe in more detail what might cause this.
First of all, the sun operates on an approximately 11-year cycle of amount of irradiation it gives off. This cycle is easily observed by counting the frequency and placement of sunspots visible on the sun.
As can be seen from this graph, the peaks in solar activity occurred around 1980, 1990-1991 and 2001-2002. Simple math tells us the next peak in activity should be in 2013.
What can also be seen in this graph is that basically everything associated with the sun peaks about the same time. The sun will experience more sunspots and a more voluminous “solar wind,” as scientists call the stream of charged particles that incessantly blows off the face of the sun, which is caused by a coronal mass ejection (CMEs). Also, we will see more solar flares. Overall, these events (as well as others) are collectively called solar storms.
Powerful solar flares hurl protons and electrons almost to the speed of light. That acceleration produces blasts of X-rays that radiate into space. Both the particles and radiation can disrupt short-wave communication on Earth.
The sun can also spawn clouds of plasma and their associated magnetic fields. Traveling at more than 1 million mph, some of these CMEs may arrive at the Earth in only a few days. CMEs pummel Earth’s magnetic field and upset the delicate balances of trapped particles in the Van Allen radiation belt and elsewhere within the boundaries of Earth’s magnetic field.
In August 1972, a 230,000-volt transformer at the British Columbia Hydro Electric Authority blew up when shifting magnetic fields induced a current spike. On March 13, 1989, a solar storm plunged Quebec into a complete power blackout, affecting millions.
What can power companies do? Utilities must take steps to make sure that their transformers–which transfer electricity from one electrical system to another–will be able to handle the stress that massive solar eruptions could pack.
Since the last solar maximum in 2002, hundreds of millions of people have come to depend on flawless, reliable work by an armada of satellites worth tens of billions of dollars. They are increasingly vulnerable.
In orbit above the protective layers of the atmosphere, they are prey to potentially hazardous dosages of radiation. The most destructive element seems to be high-energy electrons that penetrate deep into a spacecraft and affect delicate electronics.
So the question is how to protect these satellites? Well, shielding can be attached with different types of metal that deflect and/or absorb the radiation. However, the degree of shielding is a matter of cost. Shielding is dead weight, but launching it into space costs just as much as launching million-dollar technology–at an average of between $5,000 and $10,000 a pound. Thus, engineers try to design satellites with the least amount of shielding and the most sophisticated, but vulnerable, technology possible at the same time. So it is a fine line between cost now and potential cost down the line when and if a solar storm strikes.
Coronal loops loft over an active solar region