Officials in Britain and the United States are preparing to make controlled power cuts to their national electricity supplies in response to a warning of a possible powerful solar storm hitting the Earth. In an interview with The Independent, Thomas Bogdan, director of the US Space Weather Prediction Centre, said that controlled power "outages" will protect the National Electricity Grids against damage which could take months or even years to repair should a large solar storm collide with the Earth without any precautions being taken.
Dr Bogdan is in close discussions with scientists in the UK Met Office to set up a second space weather prediction centre in Britain to co-ordinate a global response to a threat viewed seriously by both the US and UK governments. One topic of discussion is how to protect national electricity grids from the immense power surges caused by the geomagnetic storms which happen when highly energetic solar particles collide with the Earth's magnetic field.
The most vulnerable parts of the grid are the hundreds of transformers connected to power lines many miles long that can experience sudden current surges during a geomagnetic solar storm, Dr Bogdan said. "It points to a potential scenario where large parts of either North America or northern Europe may be without power from between days or weeks, to perhaps months and, in extreme cases, there are estimates that it could last years," Dr Bogdan said.
The aim of the joint US-UK collaboration is to improve solar weather forecasting to a point where it is possible to warn power companies of an imminent storm. There is a feeling that if a "category 5" solar storm – the biggest of the five categories – were to be predicted, then taking the grid off-line before it is due to hit Earth and letting the storm pass would be better than trying to keep things running, he said.
In 1989, a solar geomagentic storm knocked out the electricity grid across large parts of Canada. The loss cascaded across the United States and caused power problems as far away as California. The greatest fear is a massive storm as big as the one documented by astronomer Richard Carrington in 1859, which burnt out telegraph wires.
"The sort of storms capable of doing that are fairly rare events. We refer to them as 'black swans'," Dr Bogdan said. "If the Carrington event occurred today, and power grid operators did not take efforts to safeguard their infrastructure, then we could be facing a scenario like that."