Around February 2013, the sun will ride its 11-year cycle upward toward solar maximum. During these periods, solar flares increase, and the ions generated by these massive solar explosions can create geomagnetic storms that interfere with the earth’s magnetic field.
Small geomagnetic storms are common, but cause only temporary problems in electronic equipment and small disturbances in radio waves. By contrast, some experts warn that a severe storm could cause extra high-voltage (EHV) transformers to fail catastrophically, plunging the United States back into the power equivalent of the early 19th century.
Even though NASA predicts the weakest cycle in 85 years, those who say the threat is still serious are concerned that the power industry and the U.S. government have done little to harden vulnerable EHV transformers. The power industry, however, asserts that the problem should be studied more thoroughly before companies are forced to invest in expensive and untested hardening measures.
Chuck Manto, head of the InfraGard National EMP Special Interest Group, says that a big solar storm is like a knife pointed at the United States’ jugular vein, the electrical grid. A large solar storm would produce geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) in the ground, which would saturate EHV transformers. This could cause hundreds of them to fail simultaneously, knocking down the electrical grid and producing widespread and long-lasting blackouts, according to multiple government reports. All other critical infrastructures dependent on electricity—such as banking, communications, information technology, sanitation, and water—would topple as well. If enough EHV transformers sustained damage simultaneously, manufacturing replacements and restoring power could take months, because no one stockpiles this expensive equipment.
“It would be arguably one of the worst natural disasters the country could face,” says electrical engineer John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants and an expert on the threat of geomagnetic storms to the electrical grid. “Electricity is so important to our society. We cannot sustain our population without a semblance of a functioning power grid.”
Giant geomagnetic storms have occurred throughout the earth’s history. Two for which details exist have been studied.