Solar superstorm could knock out U.S. power grid: Experts

Sunday, August 5, 2012
By Paul Martin

DEBORAH ZABARENKO, REUTERS
TorontoSun.com
FRIDAY, AUGUST 03, 2012

WASHINGTON – U.S. weather has been lousy this year, with droughts, heat and killer storms. But a solar superstorm could be far worse.

A monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Even a few hundred destroyed transformers could disable the entire interconnected system.

There is impetus for a group of federal agencies to look for ways to prepare for such a storm this year as the sun moves into an active period called solar maximum, expected to peak in 2013.

Some U.S. experts estimate as much as a 7% chance of a superstorm in the next decade, which seems a slight risk, but the effects would be so wide-ranging – akin to a major meteorite strike – that it has drawn official concern.

Although the likelihood of this kind of geomagnetic storm, like a big hit from a space rock, is extremely low, its impact would be great. By comparison, the probability of a large meteorite hitting Earth is at some fraction of 1%.

Power blackouts can cause chaos, as they did briefly in India when more than 600 million people lost electricity for hours on two consecutive days in July. However, the kind of long-duration outage that might happen in the case of a massive solar storm would have more profound and costly effects.

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