Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Solar Storms and Damage to the Communications Grid

I was interested to read over at the Discover Blog, 80 Beats, that NASA is going to be launching a new satellite next week tagged the Solar Dynamics Observatory, SDO.  For all that is known about the solar system and the universe, surprisingly little is known about the engine of our own sun - specifically the deep causes for solar storms.  The SDO's mission is to take a very high resolution image of the sun every 60 seconds in order to provide visual clues to measurable electromagnetic behavior here on earth.  The hope is that eventually, NASA will be able to forecast solar storms.

One of the biggest storms ever observed occurred on Sept. 2, 1859.  The electromagnetic field was so strong that telegraphers operating between Boston and Portland, Maine were able to communicate without any electricity in the system except that generated by the solar storm.  They actually had to disconnect the batteries that normally powered the telegraph so as not to burn the batteries out.  I had never thought about the communications grid being vulnerable even in the days of the telegraph!

In 1989, a massive solar storm took out some of the power grids in the United States and Canada.  Last year, the National Academy of Sciences released a study report that estimated the damage to the power and communications grids from a solar surge the size of the 1859 storm at one trillion dollars.  The sun operates on an eleven-year sunspot cycle and reverses its magnetic poles every twenty-two years.  While the 1859 storm has been established to be the single largest event in the last 500 years, it is only a matter of time before another major solar storm erupts.

At least solar storms are a force of nature and while they can damage the grid, it is not the same as the damage from malicious hacking attacks.  Given the ever-increasing dependence on the grids, however, anything that can be done to harden them seems like a good investment.

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