It sounds like the makings of the next cheesy action flick: The sun begins spewing massive clouds of radiation and electromagnetic charges toward planet Earth. When they hit, they knock out power grids, GPS satellites, airline communications and incite nuclear meltdowns.
But, in fact, scientists are warning that this may happen in the next few years, as the sun comes out of relative dormancy and begins emitting solar flares — the phenomenon most famous for creating the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. The solar flare cycle occurs about every 11 years and is expected to next reach its peak of activity around June 2013.
It may sound fanciful, but in 1989, a solar flare damaged a power grid in Quebec, Canada, cutting power for hours to millions of people.
The approaching spate of solar flares has prompted California Public Utilities Commission member Catherine Sandoval to ask California’s power companies to pay greater attention to the issue — particularly the companies that operate the state’s two nuclear power plants.
Utilities must take steps to make sure their transformers are robust enough to handle the charges a massive solar flare could pack, Sandoval said.
“And no transformers are more important than those attached to nuclear power plants,” she said.
California is home to two operational nuclear power plants — the Diablo Canyon plant in San Luis Obispo County and the San Onofre plant in San Diego County.
Utilities in California are well aware of the dangers of solar flares, said Joe Molica, spokesman for PG&E, which operates the Diablo Canyon plant. Yet he noted that the risk of a solar flare affecting power operations is much lower in California than it is in the country’s northern states, or in Canada.
But there is still controversy about exactly how damaging a solar flare could be, said Bob Rutledge, lead forecaster for the national Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.
A federal report released a few years ago took a dire outlook on the risks, and estimated that an especially sizeable flare could knock out as many as 300 major transformers across the country. However, an industry group tasked with looking at the issue has since disputed that estimate, arguing that newer technology is much less vulnerable to solar flares than older models.
“So the jury is still out,” Rutledge said.
There are actions power companies can take to protect their grid if they know a solar flare is coming — and such predictions may now be easier to make. This week, Stanford scientists announced they’d developed a new technique using sound waves to predict a flare a day or two before it happens.
A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation on the sun’s surface. Sometimes this eruption ejects clouds of electricity, plasma and magnetic fields through the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, flinging it through space.
What can a solar flare do to earth?
Solar flares are responsible for the electromagnetic phenomenon known as the Northern Lights, or the aurora borealis. A large enough solar flare can damage or destroy satellites, interrupt radio signals, disrupt global positioning systems, and damage power grids.
Over several hundred years of observations, scientists have learned that the sun goes through several years of relative dormancy, and then, on average, every 11 years becomes more active for a period of two years or so. That period is just beginning, and is expected to peak around June 2013.
Sources: Space Weather Prediction Center, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration