Scientists' Warning: Coming Solar Max May Pose Problems
RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
Nov. 19, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The warning light began flashing in the power company control room at 2:44 a.m. on March 13, 1989. Within 90 seconds, a cascade of circuits failed, leaving Quebec's 6 million inhabitants without power. They were victims of space weather.
The blackout took 12 hours to correct and cost Hydro-Quebec an estimated $10 million, the most dramatic effect of the last maximum cycle of sunspots.
Those cycles come along about every 11 years, and researchers are posting an early warning now that the growing dependence on electronic technology leaves people ever more susceptible to these events.
``The impact on our daily lives will be greater in this cycle than in previous cycles,'' said Ernie Hildner, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo.
``With each new solar cycle that comes along new industries have crossed the threshold of vulnerability to space weather and they don't even know it until something happens to them,'' said Hildner.
Space weather isn't like the rain and storms of Earth. It results from increases in the activity of the sun, sending out pulses of electromagnetic waves and charged particles _ some of which come crashing to Earth.
In the case of Hydro-Quebec, the event induced an unexpected current in long electric lines, setting off a series of circuit breakers and damaging transformers.
``Human beings have been largely unaware of space weather,'' said Air Force Col. Jud Stailey, assistant federal coordinator for meteorological services. ``No one ever had his hat blown off by the solar wind. Ironically, it's our technology that's affected.''
Cycle 22 peaked in July 1989 and now Cycle 23 is approaching. The most powerful cycle recorded was Cycle 19, which peaked in November 1957, but the solar storms have generally been getting stronger over the years.
In addition to surges in power lines, effects can include:
_Disruption of signals for the inexpensive single-frequency global positioning system satellites.
_Interference with the newly developed satellite cell phone system.
_Damage to computers and other electrical systems in satellites.
_Expansion of the Earth's atmosphere, slowing down satellites and pieces of space debris, making them harder to track.
_Induced currents in pipelines and other large metal arrays.
_Changes in the Earth's magnetic field, interfering with the signals used to direct oil drilling bits deep underground.
``We don't know all the industries that have (reached) the level of vulnerability,'' Hildner said. ``After the first event of a new cycle, we get puzzled calls'' from people having problems.
The Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are combining efforts to collect information on solar cycles and try to issue forecasts and warnings, the researchers said.
``In space weather, we are today about where we were in the 1950s in regard to terrestrial weather,'' said Stailey. ``We need to develop (computer) models to anticipate events on the sun and forecast the effects on Earth.''
Hildner said he expects private firms to begin entering the space-weather forecasting business, using government data to provide specialized information to businesses just as many firms do now with traditional weather forecasts.
Bill Feero, president of Electric Research and Management in State College, Pa., said electric utilities are working on a project to organize warnings so they can take steps to protect equipment and avoid future blackouts like the one in Canada.
``A few minutes can be golden in terms of getting ready for a storm,'' he said. Power can be rerouted and switches and other systems set to be less sensitive until the solar storm passes.