Vol: 110 Issue: 22 Monday, November 22, 2010
In January, 2009 the National Academy of Sciences issued a study, funded by NASA, that concluded that nothing is immune from the effects of solar weather.
“Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend,” the report notes. “Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather.”
A geomagnetic storm begins with an enormous burst of electrically charged gas, or plasma, from the sun. The gas travels very quickly — on the order of a million miles an hour or faster — and if it happens to be aimed at Earth, can reach the planet in as little as a day.
Then, strange things happen to the Earth’s orderly magnetic field. It begins to fluctuate, creating differing electric potentials on the Earth’s surface.
From this point, a simple law of electricity follows: If the potential at one end of a transmission line is higher than the potential at the other end, dozens or even hundreds of miles away, a current will flow through the line.
Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems.
Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours.
According to the report, power grids may be more vulnerable than ever. The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand.
On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense—but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging “cascade failures.”
To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid.
He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power.
The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with “water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.”
The recently published book, “Aftermath” written by Lawrence Joseph, argues that more than 100 million Americans would be affected by such a blackout – which could last for months, or even years.
The problem is that the world’s power grids are like giant lightning rods for space weather blasts. The power grid is designed to efficiently conduct electricity, which also attracts space weather shocks.
The weakest point in the North America power grid is the transformers. Here’s how they work.
Transformers receive power from high voltage transmission lines which in turn receive their power from substations directly connected to the main power plant, be it coal, oil, gas, hydroelectric or nuclear.
High voltage transmission lines, the ones held up by those big Y-shaped metal trellis structures that can be seen stretching along the highway, carry the current as far as 300 miles.
The farther the distance, the higher the voltage required, just as more water pressure would be required to produce a steady, reliable stream of water out of a long hose than out of a short one.
(Volts are essentially units of pressure, while amps are units of volume. The simplest analogy is to water: volts would measure how hard the water rushes out of the hose, amps would measure how much water is flowing.)
The power from the transmission lines is fed into the transformers, whose job is to then step it down from the level of hundreds of thousands of volts to tens of thousands of volts, then split the current into several directions via a device known as a “bus.”
The bus sends the electricity through the network of power lines one sees everywhere held up by utility poles. Transformers in communities then drop the voltage down to levels used in homes and businesses, so the flow of electricity requires transformers at many points in the network and if transformers are damaged, then no electricity can flow.
The higher the voltage processed by a transformer, the more vulnerable it is to damage from a solar-induced EMP. Here is the problem.
Transformers weigh over 100 tons apiece and usually cannot be repaired in the field, and because of their size they cannot be flown in from overseas factories where they are now made.
Most transformers can’t even be repaired after a major EMP and would have to be replaced. Currently, there is a worldwide waiting list for new transformers of about three years! And about half of them either fail in testing or fail prematurely in service.
Noted USAToday this week:
With the sun’s 11-year solar cycle ramping up for its stormy maximum in 2012, and nuclear concerns swirling about Iran and North Korea, a drumbeat of reports and blue-ribbon panels center on electromagnetic pulse scenarios.
“We’re taking this seriously,” says Ed Legge of the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, which represents utilities. He points to a North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) report in June, conducted with the Energy Department, that found pulse threats to the grid “may be much greater than anticipated.”
There are “some important reasons for concern,” says physicist Yousaf Butt of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “But there is also a lot of fluff.”
At risk are the more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that cross North America, supplying 1,800 utilities the power for TVs, lights, refrigerators and air conditioners in homes, and for the businesses, hospitals and police stations that take care of us all.
What is the likelihood of a major, grid-frying solar storm? The insurance giant, Lloyd’s of London is betting on one hitting earth next year.
Two weeks ago, a massive CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) erupted, sending a blast of xrays towards the earth in what may be the first in a series of solar storms in the days ahead.
“Astronomers who study the sun have five categories of flares: A, B, C, M and X,” explained SPACE.com’s skywatching columnist Joe Rao. “The M and X flares are the most potent types and the one that erupted [Saturday] was an M 5.4 which is just about the most powerful flare we’ve seen in many years.”
At the time of the flare, sunspot group 1121 was on the limb, or the edge, of the sun’s disk, so any cloud of electrified particles ejected by the flare would not reach Earth, Rao said.
“But as the sun rotates, this active region of the sun will be turned more and more toward the center of its disk … it will be there around Nov. 12 to 13,” Rao said.
“If a similar M-class flare erupts around that time, we could be in line to see a very nice display of northern lights a day or two later when the cloud of electrified solar particles reaches Earth.”
That nice display of Northern Lights, could, however, be the only night lights we have on for awhile, unless a way is found to shield the grid from damage.
The National Academy of Sciences warned two years ago that power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications could “all be knocked out by intense solar activity”.
It warned a powerful solar storm could cause “twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina”.
NASA is developing what it calls a ‘solar shield’ – although it isn’t a shield or anything like a shield. It is more like an early warning system or a weather alert.
But instead of warning citizens to unplug electronic devices to prevent damage, NASA will warn power companies to unplug portions of the grid likely to be damaged until after the storm has passed.
Approximately 30 minutes before the storm reaches Earth, NASA would be able to provide specific information regarding which areas of the globe would feel the brunt of the impact; power companies could then cause a temporary, regional blackout, and restore service after the CME had passed.
Will it work? Who knows? But that is the plan. As for you and me, we won’t know whether or not it worked until the power comes back on.
Let’s consider the effect of a power grid failure. First off, if the lights go out, that is all you will know until they come back on. We will have no way of knowing if the outage will last an hour, a day, a week or a year.
We won’t know how extensive it is or even what caused it. With no phone, no radio or TV or internet, how could you? Gas stations won’t be able to pump gas, so you won’t be able to go far to find out.
It is impossible to imagine what the effect of a prolonged blackout would be on North America long term. There will be no refrigeration for food and medicine. No food distribution. No clean water. With no traffic lights, large cities will screech to a complete halt.
Hospitals and emergency services will cease. Medicines will spoil. Uncounted millions will die.
Wherever you are when the lights go out, that is where you’ll likely still be when they come back on. If they come back on. And it won’t be until they come back on that we’ll be able to take stock of the damage.
How does this all fit in with Bible prophecy? First and most obviously, such a scenario is a direct fulfillment of a specific prophecy made by Jesus Christ concerning the signs of His second coming.
“And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:25-27)
Secondly, I’ve often wondered about how the enemy will come up with a believable explanation for the Rapture. It always perplexed me how anybody could explain away the sudden disappearance of millions of people.
If the lights go out for any significant length of time, when they come back on, it will be after millions have perished in the dark from pestilence, disease, hunger and chaos. That is simply a given.
How many do you think would survive a year in the dark in California’s cramped coastal cities like Los Angeles? No food, no water, no traffic lights, no gas?
What about those living out in the desert communities like Palm Springs? It’s 100 miles to the nearest water. A long walk for a drink.
What about New York City? Or Houston? What about the northern cities forced to deal with winter cold, in addition to no water, no food and no gasoline?
When the lights come back on, who will be left? I have this mental image of the lights suddenly coming back on, together with long-dormant TV sets announcing new leadership that will help steer us back out of the chaos.
A blackout would explain the Rapture nicely. Nobody will be asking the question, “Where did everybody go?” They won’t need to.
The missing would be lumped in with the dead. Those who are alive and remain will just be grateful that they are still here.
After a couple of years in the dark, whoever emerges as leader could wear the nametag, “A. Christ” without raising an eyebrow.
The passage in Luke draws a complete circle. It starts, “And there shall be signs in the sun . . . “ and concludes: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.” (Luke 21:25-28)