Sun’s threat to power grids

Power grids could be devastated by a storm on the sun, astronomers warned today. Scientists have built a detailed model of the UK’s electricity network to check the effects of what they call space weather.

They found that the same storms that produce colourful northern lights produce electrical surges that can cause blackout and destroy transformers in power stations and the national grid.

The model, the most sophisticated ever produced, takes measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field from all over the UK and combines them with findings about how currents from space are conducted through different areas of the Earth’s crust.

It showed that there is a real threat from solar flares to Britain rather than just to countries closer to the Earth’s magnetic poles.

The new model was produced by a team from Lancaster University and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh. Results were presented today at the National Astronomy Meeting in Glasgow, organised by the Royal Astronomical Society.

It follows similar warnings of doom last year soon after the 150th anniversary of the biggest flare ever seen on the sun which brought down the telegraph system and caused spectacular aurorae in 1859.

Dr Jim Wild, a Lancaster researcher in the team, told Skymania News: “We need to look at what the consequences of a similar event of a similar event would be today. What has changed is our vulnerability.

“If the world’s transformers are destroyed, you can’t just buy new ones off the shelf. Lose electricity and you can’t purify water, can’t treat sewage, can’t pump oil, you can’t refrigerate anything, communications, satnav and the internet go – it is Armageddon-type stuff.”

The US National Academies has estimated that a space storm hitting the USA could cost 1-2 trillion dollars in the first year and the country would take four to ten years to recover.

Meanwhile, UK scientists have devised a new technique to predict when blasts of space weather from the sun will batter the Earth, Venus and Mars, they revealed at the meeting today.

Using observations from NASA solar satellites they are producing more accurate forecasts for when streams of highly charged particles will hit the upper atmosphere.

Such events cause spectaular dispays of aurora but can threaten satelltes, power networks and communications systems.

The new forecasts are produced by space scientists at Leicester University examing data from a pair of satellites called STEREO and a third probe called ACE that constantly monitor the sun.

They combine this information about the speed and direction of the sun’s windy blasts with data from instruments aboard European spacecraft orbiting Venus and Mars to get a bigger picture of space wather across the solar system.

Editor’s note: For a thrilling read about the 1858 solar storm that had such an impact on Earth, check out The Sun Kings by Dr Stuart Clark. Click here to buy it from Amazon in the USA, or in the UK. It is available in hardback or paperback.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.


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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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