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Concern grows over possibility of a massive power surge

Whether caused by solar flares or terrorists, a major electromagnetic pulse could fry the electric grid and cause massive disruption, an increasing number of observers say.

February 01, 2014|By Evan Halper
  • A solar flare erupts in 2012. At a recent conference in Washington, officials discussed the potential danger of a massive solar storm and its potential effect on the power grid.
A solar flare erupts in 2012. At a recent conference in Washington, officials… (NASA )

FREDERICK, Md. — Roscoe Bartlett was rattling off the prices of giant bags of rice, wheat and corn, sold cheaply at Sam's Club. The former congressman from rural, western Maryland expressed bewilderment that every American doesn't stockpile such things, considering what he is sure is coming.

"Storing enough calories isn't really a challenge," said the rugged 87-year-old Republican, who served 10 terms on Capitol Hill. "The real challenge is vitamins and stuff."

Bartlett is preparing for an epic power outage. More than the lights would go out, he fears. All electronics could malfunction. Cars might not run. GPS systems would fail. Generators would be of no use, as gas pumps would stop working. The disruption could last a year or more. There would be looting, rioting, a general societal collapse.

It will be caused, he says, by a surge of magnetic current that fries the power grid and wreaks havoc on all electronics. Either a solar storm will trigger it, he says, or a terrorist act.

The scenario seems purely one of science fiction, and, in fact, many analysts dismiss as overwrought the scenes of devastation sketched out by the former congressman and fellow believers.

But the ranks of those concerned that the country is on a collision course with a dangerous electromagnetic surge have increased considerably of late. Long the preserve of hawkish conservatives — notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — the idea that the power system is at risk has been drawing a wider audience. Regulators have begun scrambling to put a plan in place.

"We definitely think this is a risk," said Trevor Maynard, head of exposure management at Lloyd's of London. "It is one of those hazards you just know is going to happen, just like you know a major Miami hurricane will happen."

Of course, the fact that a massive hurricane will hit Miami — or a major earthquake will strike Southern California — hasn't stopped millions of people from flocking to those areas.

For government officials, few problems are tougher than deciding how best to head off rare, but potentially devastating, event risks. Do too much and you impose unreasonable costs and hurt the economy in response to a problem that might not happen for centuries. Do too little and you add to a list of unheeded disaster warnings that includes the risk of storm surges in New Orleans and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

In the case of electronic pulses, the most sober warnings come from government weather scientists.

At a recent conference in Washington, William Murtagh of the federal Space Weather Prediction Center described the dangers of a massive solar storm that is, as the Lloyd's report on the issue says, "almost inevitable."

Such storms take place roughly every 150 years. The last one was 155 years ago.

During the "Carrington event" of 1859, named after the English astronomer who observed it, a huge solar storm ejected a mass of particles and electromagnetic energy intense enough to induce a surge that knocked out the switching system of the New York Central Railroad below 125th Street and caused the control tower to catch fire. News reports told of telegraph wires going berserk.

But electricity was hardly the backbone of society in pre-Civil War America. Scientists fear such an occurrence now could cause chaos.

A preview of the potential damage came in 1989, when the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada collapsed in less than two minutes from a solar storm. Six million people were without power for nine hours.

A bigger event could knock out multiple transformers — so many, perhaps, that backup systems would be overwhelmed. Replacing them could take months.

Lloyd's is uncertain whether the impact of a solar-storm-induced magnetic pulse would be cataclysmic. But its worst-case scenario would truly be: 20 million to 40 million Americans losing electricity for as long as a year or two, "resulting in major and widespread social unrest, riots and theft."

A year and a half ago, America came close — at least in astronomical terms — to finding out what could happen. In July 2012, a massive ejection from a solar storm headed toward Earth. The storm was the size of Carrington's. It missed Earth's orbital position by seven days.

That was a wake-up call, said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

At a San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, Baker proposed the government take the information collected from the 2012 event and use it to create a kind of geomagnetic "war games" to simulate the effects of a huge solar flare, "rather than waiting to be clobbered by a direct hit."

Congress has taken note, as has the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has asked utilities to assess their vulnerabilities and come up with plans.

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