Spark a Conversation with Our Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 4

By Vernon Trollinger, May 24, 2016, Events & Fun

Energy – whether electrical, thermal, or mechanical – can do fantastic things, and sometimes science uncovers phenomena no one even dreamed was possible. Because it’s fun to shock and astound friends and relations with incredible facts, we’re going to investigate some of this unbelievable and really cool information. Our Fun Energy Facts series will be at times hot, cold, weighty, electrifying, and morbid, but we know you’ll get enough of a charge out of it to spark an energetic conversation.

Brighten Up Your World with Our Sunny Trivia!

Our sun may be the biggest fusion reactor in our solar system, but it’s still nearly 93 million miles away. If that sounds like a huge distance, it really is. But the next time you’re basking in the warm rays of the sun, remember that it periodically blasts our little blue marble with monster energy storms powerful enough to snuff out huge areas of electrical service and plunge millions of people into darkness.

Lucky for you, we’ve collected some interesting trivia about our wonderful sun to help you blind your friends with your intelligence at your next gathering.

How Could the Sun Cause Blackouts?

Spark a Conversation with Our Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 4

Auroras are beautiful, but they can also reflect intense activity in global electromagnetic fields.

On September 1, 1859, skies all over the globe erupted in red, green, and purple auroras. These were so bright people could read newspapers by the light. and while auroras are common in the northern states and Canada, these amazing displays were seen over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.

While our modern electrical grid was virtually nonexistent in the middle of the 19th Century, telegraph wires crisscrossed the globe, and these went complete insane. Operators received electrical shocks. Some equipment shot bolts of sparks, igniting office papers that burst into flames. On September 2, operators in Boston, MA found that even though they disconnected the power to their telegraph systems, they were still able to send and receive messages for a few hours because the atmosphere had become highly charged with electrical current.

Know as the Carrington Event, the geomagnetic storm of 1859 remains one of the biggest on record. But it certainly isn’t the last. Notable storms with similar disruptions have been documented ever since. The Easter Sunday Storm of March 25, 1940 is interesting because voltage readings from the ground were reported from numerous locations. Currents measured 400 Volts in Boston, MA, 450 in Milwaukee, WI, and over 750 volts near St. Louis, MO. The Transtlantic Cable between Scotland and Newfoundland saw voltages surge up to 2,600 volts during the storm.

So, how come there’s electricity coming out of the ground? It starts with solar flares.

What is a Solar Flare?

Spark a Conversation with Our Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 4

Solar flares can be really dangerous to Earth.

Well, the surface of the sun is not a tranquil, happy place. Highly charged plasmas of hydrogen and helium churn amid surging magnetic fields. And when magnetic fields enter and exit the sun’s surface, relative cooler spots, also known as sunspots, form. These are visible as giant glowing loops of plasma. The denser the concentration of sunspots, the more active the area becomes. Many sunspots are as large as the earth itself.

An intense bright burst of light and radiation from one of these areas is a solar flare. They affect radio and TV broadcast signals. When the magnetic fields looping out above a sunspot area close overhead in the sun’s corona, it releases a fantastic amount of energy. This tears loose a billion tons of gas and plasma in a staggering explosion (including a shockwave) that heads out into space at several million miles per hour. This is called a Coronal Mass Ejection or CME. If a CME is on an interception course for the earth, it causes a geomagnetic storm lasting up to 36 hours.

Spark a Conversation with Our Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 4

An illustration of Earth’s magnetic field experiencing a solar flare.

A CME takes an average time of 98 hours to hit the earth. Fast ones can make the trip in 14-17 hours. If the CME’s magnetic field is opposite to the earth’s when it hits, then it could spell disaster. The CME’s force squeezes and distorts the planet’s magnetic field (magnetosphere). Terawatts of electrical energy from the CME and the distortion of the earth’s magnetosphere is released along magnetic field lines into the earth.

Sure, it produce beautiful auroras, but the magnetic fields induce electrical currents to flow in transmission lines, pipelines, anything capable of conducting electricity. Since this geomagnetic induced current (GIC) appears as low frequency variable direct current (DC), it doesn’t work well the grid’s standard alternating current (AC). These problems can cause transformers to overheat, relays to malfunction, and subsequent line instability that can shut down an entire grid. For example, the March 1989 geomagnetic storm knocked out power in Quebec, Canada for nine hours, affecting 6 million people, and cost $6 billion.

When is the Next Carrington Event?

Spark a Conversation with Our Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 4

A Carrington Event could decimate Earth’s electrical and communications grids.

The Sun follows a cycle of rising and falling sun spot activity that’s roughly 11 years long. This solar cycle was discovered in 1843 by Samuel H. Schwabe, and solar cycles have been numbered ever since. Because our world is more dependent on electronic communications technologies than ever before, government scientific agencies monitor both solar activity and solar wind speeds with orbiting satellite observatories.

The current solar cycle is #24, and it began on January 4, 2008. While it has so far had the lowest amount of recorded sunspot activity since accurate records began in 1750, there have been a few surprises. The Solar Storm of 2012 was a monster CME that narrowly missed the earth by 9 days in its orbit around the sun. Scientists using solar observatory data determined this CME was as strong as the 1859 Carrington Event. Analysis by Lloyds (of London) estimated that power outages in the US could have lasted anywhere from 16 days to one-to-two years, with economic losses costing $0.6-2.6 trillion.

Shielding projects have long been underway to protect power resources from GIC damage but costs are high. The Canadian government, for example, invested $1.2 billion to protect power stations in Quebec. NASA, meanwhile, has been using its “Solar Shield” project to find out ways to better shield the North American grid.

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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