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Solar storms are simply no longer a threat

The sunspot cycle as of May 2024
The sunspot cycle as of May 2024. Click
for full details.

Today’s Chicken Little Report: When NOAA predicted on May 9, 2024 that a powerful solar flare had erupted from the Sun and was aiming a major solar storm directly at the Earth, the scientists at the federal government’s Space Weather Prediction Center could not help underlining the disaster potential, and were ably aided by the mainstream press. This CNN report was typical:

“Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” according to the Space Weather Prediction Center. “(The center) has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.”

The center has notified operators in these areas to take action to mitigate the potential for any impacts, which include the possibility of increased and more frequent voltage control problems. Other aspects operators will monitor include a chance of anomalies or impacts to satellite operations and frequent or longer periods of GPS degradation.

And as always, the news report has to end with this warning of doom:

Extreme storms have occurred before, such as one that knocked out the power grid in Quebec in 1989 and the Carrington Event of 1859.The latter remains the most intense geomagnetic storm ever recorded, causing telegraph stations to spark and catch fire.

If such an event were to occur today, it could cause trillions of dollars’ worth of damage and bring down some power grids for a substantial amount of time.

Yet, the most significant consequence of that storm — the most powerful to hit the Earth in more than two decades and possibly the most powerful in two centuries — were the spectacular auroras it generated, some at latitudes farther south than had been seen in years. There were some minor disruptions in the electrical grid is a few places, but nothing significant or worrisome.

Rather than focus on the disaster that might happen, wouldn’t be more useful to focus on what actually did happen? The 1989 solar storm that knocked out the Quebec electrical grid was not as powerful as this most recent storm, but it acted as a warning that some serious work needed to be done to protect the world’s electrical and satellite systems from future even more powerful storms.

I know this because I was reporting this story in the 1990s for magazines like Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, and Stardate. At that time there was real concern that during future solar maximums, which were expected to be highly active (much more than they turned out to be), a powerful solar storm might arrive that could knock out the world’s technical infrastructure.

What this most recent storm has shown us all, however, is that the engineers and managers who run those systems did their proper due diligence in the ensuing decades. By 2024 they were prepared for such a big storm, and when one arrived on May 11, 2024 they made sure that infrastructure continued to function throughout.

And it did.

This is something to celebrate, loudly. It signals that our technical civilization can still accomplish great things, and do them responsibly, even if there appears to be no direct or immediate profit for doing so.

Sadly our society no longer appears to like to celebrate. Not one week had passed after the May 11th storm when I began seeing a number of Chicken Little reports warning of the danger posed by future solar activity. This article from the The Daily Mail is very typical: “EXCLUSIVE: Scientist warns more powerful solar eruptions could hit Earth in 2025 – and cause the worst geomagnetic storm in 165 years“.

A Harvard astrophysicist told DailyMail.com that the sun has not yet reached its ‘solar maximum,’ the most energetic point of its recurring, 11-year solar cycle, in which greater turbulence raises the sun’s total energy output. That ‘maximum’ will finally come in the heat of the summer next year: July 2025.

‘We could easily get much bigger storms over the next year or two,’ Dr. Jonathan McDowell told DailyMail.com.

The ‘extreme (G5) geomagnetic conditions’ of last weekend’s solar storm was produced by a disturbance on the sun’s surface, a ‘sunspot,’ that was larger than the solar disturbance that produced the infamous 1859 Carrington event.

The Carrington solar storm set telegraph wires on fire, cut communications worldwide, and even disrupted ships’ compasses — and space weather experts anticipate that a direct hit from the bigger solar storms coming soon could be worse.


Maybe this is proof that Idiocracy has not arrived

All garbage. Such storms do not come “easily,” as McDowall claims. Last week’s was the first in two decades, and was only one of a tiny handful since 1859. Furthermore, all the data now strongly suggests the solar maximum in 2025 will be weak one, further reducing the odds of another big storm. Either McDowall was misleading the Daily Mail reporter, or that reporter was mis-stating what McDowall really said.

In either case, the result was a fear-driven story based not on reality.

If last week’s storm was “larger” than the one that produced the very rare and powerful and dangerous Carrington event, as McDowall claims, it proves without doubt the risks from solar weather are now well under control.

I say, let’s give everyone involved in this field a big cheer, and recognize that they have done a good job of figuring out how to manage a complex technological society in a universe that often strives to trip you.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
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12 comments

  • Chuck

    To back up your statements, I’ll offer an example from the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), that controls the grid in the Midwest (Minnesota & southern Canada to Louisiana). The example below was sent to all system operators in the regions listed:

    New Declaration: Geomagnetic Disturbance Warning

    05/10/2024
    MISO has declared a Geomagnetic Disturbance Warning effective starting 05/10/2024 12:08 EST until 05/10/2024 18:59 EST.

    Affected Region(s): North, Central, and South

    Declared due to:
    Geomagnetic K-index of: K-7

    Instructions:
    Review SO-P-NOP-00-449 Conservative System Operations Procedure for expected actions.
    Report occurrences of abnormal conditions to the MISO RC that may be caused by this Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD).
    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides additional information via their Electric Power Community Dashboard that is used monitor and track GMD Activity.
    Review SO-P-AOP-00-01 Geomagnetic Disturbance Operations Plan, if necessary.
    Perform all actions as outlined in internal GMD Operating Procedure or Operating Plan.
    MISO will continue to monitor system conditions and issue additional GMD update as necessary.

    If you go to the link, you can see the multitude of the system alerts and activity surrounding the event. This kind of thing did NOT happen 10 years ago.

    Link: https://www.misoenergy.org/markets-and-operations/notifications/real-time-operations-notifications/real-time-notification/?id=1647

    Note to add that when you see an alert like “Conservative Operations”, that tells power plants and grid operators to cease any non-essential maintenance or testing. It can happen during periods of unusual weather (hot or cold), or an unexpected rash of unplanned outages (both plants and lines). These are happening more frequently as older plants shut down and reserve capacity margins shrink.

  • John

    Let’s not celebrate too quickly, I’m sure we can still screw it up!

    Sol: Challenge accepted.

  • James Street

    “the engineers and managers who run those systems did their proper due diligence in the ensuing decades”

    Or solar storms don’t have much effect. I didn’t hear of any mass outages in third world countries who didn’t fortify their grids. Those grids are baling wire and duct tape.

  • James Street: The technical issues are complex, from what I understand. For example, the bedrock landscape of Quebec and to the north supposedly made that electrical grid more vulnerable.

    However, that blackout in Quebec did happen in 1989, due to a solar storm. It was clear from that data that measures were required to prevent a repeat.

  • The Carrington event was dramatic, but I’m wondering about a key difference. In those days we are talking about battery powered dc lines typically single wire with earth return. As magnetic fields induced current and voltage on the long runs some overloaded and caught fire.

    Now our long runs are run at hundreds of kilovolts between regions, and thousands of volts till it hits a final step down transformer for end users. At these voltages an induced dc current is just a few percentages more power. Does this mean it is more immune? I don’t know but am curious if others do

  • Jeff Wright

    A failed Carrington Event detonated aquatic mines during the Vietnam war

  • Andrew M.

    Here here! Three cheers. Truly!

    The Lame Stream Press always takes a snapshot of the worst moment then never EVER reports on all the stuff that was changed so it couldn’t happen again.

    The seem to be absolutely dedicated to portraying humanity as the most incompetent life form on Earth Totally incapable of taking care of itself. Too stupid to live.

  • Edward

    James Street wrote: “Or solar storms don’t have much effect. I didn’t hear of any mass outages in third world countries who didn’t fortify their grids. Those grids are baling wire and duct tape.

    These storms tend to have the most effect closer to the poles, not the equator. If you note where the third world countries tend to be and where the more advanced countries are, you may conclude that equatorial regions tend to make life easier, but civilizations closer to the poles have had to be more inventive to solve the problems of harsher living conditions. Even the effects of space weather are harsher toward the polar regions. Earth’s magnetic field protects the equatorial region somewhat better than it protects the poles.

    The major effects on Earth come from electrons and ions becoming caught in Earth’s magnetic field and spiraling into the polar regions. The visible effects are the auroras, the northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis). Other effects are beyond our senses. The Moon and Mars have much weaker magnetic fields, so the effects there would be more planet-wide than polar, and they would be more related to direct contact with the electrons and ions than the secondary effects that we experience here on Earth.
    ____________
    I have not looked, but I have not heard of any geostationary satellites that have suffered ill effects, as has happened in the past. Robert‘s big cheer includes the designers of these parts of our infrastructure, too, as space weather has killed some of these satellites in the past.

  • John

    https://spaceweather.com/ has a post about the last storm.

    I’m not fear mongering that the sun is going to take down the grid and destroy civilization, but the article suggests this storm was about half power of what we humans think good ol Sol might be capable of.

    Cut/paste from spaceweather: When researchers talk about geoelectric fields they use units of volts per km (V/km). Earth’s crust naturally contains quiet-time fields measuring as little as 0.01 V/km. During geomagnetic storms, these values skyrocket.

    “On May 10-11, geoelectric amplitudes exceeded 10 V/km in Virginia and 9 V/km in the upper Midwest,” says Jeffrey Love, a key member of the collaboration at the USGS. “These are very high. For comparison, we estimate that geoelectric amplitudes reached almost 22 V/km in Virginia during the March 1989 storm.”

    This means the May 2024 storm was, electrically speaking, about half as intense as the storm that blacked out Québec 35 years ago. End cut/paste.

    AR3663 is back…. maybe it has a few X class flares left in it. I missed the show.

  • Don C.

    In the late 1980s, there was a lot of DoD-funded research on EMP phenomena, affecting the electrical grid and naval ships. Mario Rabinowitz wrote a 22-page paper (among others) on the effects of EMP on the electrical grid.

    He writes “Of the two basic kinds of EMP, one is a relatively slow electro-magnetic pulse called magnetohydrodynamic EMP (MHD EMP), lasting < ~ 100 sec., E ~ 10-2 V/m.

    His conclusion includes the paragraph below – (this from a paper written in 1987). Power System design has only gotten better since then, while the basic physics of a thermonuclear EMP has remained the same.

    “Based upon the analyses presented in this paper and in Refs. [7-81, it appears highly
    improbable if not impossible that the EMP from a single nuclear burst could blackout this
    nation’s power grid. It would be practically impossible for the EMP to cause widespread damage
    to the U.S. transmission line system. With the exception of isolated cases, it appears highly
    unlikely that EMP could produce extensive damage to the U.S. distribution grid. A single nuclear
    device exploded at high altitude will not render vital electrical services inoperable across the
    entire United States as has been suggested in many media references.”

  • Don C.

    Dropped the last sentence:

    Of the two basic kinds of EMP, one is a relatively slow electro-magnetic pulse called magnetohydrodynamic EMP (MHD EMP), lasting < ~ 100 sec., E ~ 10-2 V/m.

  • Don C.

    This is the last sentence:
    “This is similar to solar storms which last ~ 10 min, E > ~ 10-2 V/m”

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