OPINION: About 150 million kilometres away, near the centre of our Solar System, a storm is quietly brewing.
Just like Earth, the Sun has its own weather systems. It’s swirling mass of energy is occasionally unleashed in the form of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, basically a big blast of plasma.
That energy radiates out from the sun and arrives at Earth about a day later. Our planet’s magnetic field protects us from the worst of it. But big space weather events can knock out electricity grids and interfere with satellites and radio equipment.
That’s why most governments now list space weather as an ever-present risk they need to prepare for alongside pandemics, earthquakes and floods.
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Now a team of researchers at the University of Otago has received $15 million in funding through the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Round to figure out how to better forecast space weather and protect our electricity networks from it.
Covid-19 has made us increasingly dependent on digital technologies for communication and commerce. As we usher in 5G mobile networks, autonomous vehicles and smart cities networked with sensors, we will be ever more vulnerable to the impacts of a big solar storm, which could fry power plant equipment, substations and transmission lines all over the world.
For the US, the estimated cost of such an event is US$500 billion to US$2.7 trillion, the Otago researchers note.
“A very rough estimate for New Zealand suggests an annualised risk cost of NZ$1 billion a year.”
The US Congress last week passed a space weather bill that allows for a national strategy to combat the effects of space weather and to improve forecasting efforts. Nasa is planning to make greater use of specialised satellites to study the Sun to get a better handle on space weather patterns.
Other measures include the Department of Homeland Security developing recovery transformers that could revive blacked out power grids. Electricity companies are also developing equipment to protect their networks, such as capacitor banks to absorb and dissipate excess energy and Faraday cages to shield critical infrastructure.
Accurate space weather detection could give us a few hours notice of a major event and electricity providers could pre-emptively shut down their networks to prevent damage.
It is the one in 100 and one in 200-year events that our researchers will focus on. One of those happened in 1859 in what is known as the Carrington Event, named after the British astronomer Richard C. Carrington who observed the massive solar flare that accompanied it.
Auroras flashed across the sky all over the world in a major geomagnetic storm. Telegraph systems failed everywhere. If an event of that magnitude happened today it would plunge us into darkness and create an information blackout.
But this is an important project to help us develop the resilience we need to get through an equally dangerous storm.
Sun, Solar cycle 25, Space weather, Earth
World news – CA – Preparing NZ for space weather that would disable the grid and internet