Assessing the Risk of Disaster

People joke about sun spots as though they were irrelevant to the Earth and our daily lives.

But they aren’t the benign oddity that people assume.

Thought needs to be given to how sun spots may affect the Earth and our very existence.
For example: In 2012 The United States and Canada, and probably Europe, missed by a hair’s breadth, an event that probably would have destroyed their civilizations.

A bit of history is in order.

In 1859, there was a solar storm, the Carrington Event, that had a significant effect on the Earth. Auroras could be seen streaming as far south as Guatemala and, in the southern hemisphere, as far north as Ecuador. Telegraph operations were severely damaged in the United Sates and England, and at least one telegraph operator was injured.

The telegraph was the only major widespread use of electricity in the mid-19th century; a far different situation than exists today.

Today, the use of electricity is widespread, with transmission and distribution lines spread across North America and Europe.

Image os Sun from NASA
Image of Sun from NASA

Two recent solar storms, less than half the size of the Carrington Event, occurred in 1921 and in 1989. The 1989 event caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

A report by Homeland Security said, “GICs (Ground Induced Currents) can overload the grid, causing severe voltage regulation problems and, potentially, widespread power outages. Moreover, GICs can cause intense internal heating in extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers, putting them at risk of failure.”

And, there are “300 EHV transformers in the United States” that are at risk.

Recently a physicist, Pete Riley, estimated that there was a 12% chance that a Carrington sized solar storm could hit the Earth in the next ten years.

He made this estimate after a Carrington sized storm in 2012 missed the Earth because the eruption was in the wrong position on the sun.

“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire,” said Daniel Baker, professor of atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado.

A 12% chance is a significantly high probability.

On the other hand, it also means there is almost a 90% chance that a Carrington sized storm won’t happen.

Human nature might be inclined to ignore the threat when there is a 90% chance it won’t happen.

But there is the question of how much risk is involved.

Placing a $10 bet at the casino, when there is a 90% chance of losing, isn’t particularly risky.

But if you were betting your life, the 90% chance of losing would loom large.

Are we taking the possibility of a Carrington sized storm seriously enough, when it could destroy our civilization?

That’s the issue.

There are only a small number of manufacturers, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, in the United States that have the capability of building EHV transformers.

It could require several months to build such a unit, which is the size of a small house. Some units are unique to their particular location, and transformers this large are very difficult to transport.

Over 200 million Americans, stretching from Seattle to New York City, could be without electricity for over a year if several EHV transformers were damaged.

Civil society would likely break down when there was no food or water, and when other services, such as elevators, TV, radio or cell phones, were unavailable.

The House of Representatives held hearings on this issue on June 18, 2013. Some work is being done to address the issue, but probably not enough if the 12% probability is right.

Recently a single phase transformer was built and successfully installed to determine whether such transformers could be used, in sets of three, to replace a 3-phase EHV transformer. Their smaller size would also make them easier to transport and install.

Such an approach, if successful, raises the possibility of building a few hundred such units to be stationed at strategic locations around the country, where they could be quickly installed to replace damaged EHV transformers.

Or, a number of 3-phase EHV transformers could be built and kept near units that might be damaged in a Carrington Event.

With more research, it might be possible to determine how EHV transformers could be protected from induced currents.

Actually, little is being done beyond that which has been mentioned here.

Billions of dollars would be required to build replacement transformers. And money would be needed to do the research required to develop alternate strategies, or to more accurately establish the probability of such an event occurring.

A 12% probability of a Carrington Event occurring sometime in the next ten years represents too great a risk to do nothing.

At this point, we are betting our lives that the sun will behave.

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