Wednesday, June 18, 2014

PBS Nova "Earth from Space" presents coronal mass ejection risk to power grid


Many PBS stations tonight aired the “Earth from Space” series  (link) including “At the Edge of Space”.
    
The “main event” explained the oxygen and nitrogen cycles in the atmosphere, particularly showing how plankton are the “lungs of the Earth” and tampering with the health (temperature and acidity) of the oceans does not bode well.  The documentary explained how lightning forms nitrogen compounds that are essential to proteins and life.  Toward the end, it explained coronal mass ejections from solar storms, and explained how bigger CME’s pierce the outer layer of the Earth’s magnetic field and lead to the aurora or northern lights.
The second documentary “At the Edge of Space” examined how thunderstorms cause “sprites” to fire up into the ionosphere, with the whole phenomenon known only since 1973.  There was a lot of detail to an experiment in Colorado filming the behavior of sprites during big Great Plains thunderstorms near the Rockies. But toward the end, the documentary returned to give even more detail about the dangers to the power grid from really big coronal mass ejections.  It explained how Montreal lost power for nine hours due to a big CME in 1989, and part of Sweden was down for hours in 2003.  CME’s may be more dangerous closer to the poles.  It simulated the Carrington Event of 1859, which produced aurora’s as far south as Panama and Hawaii, and which might take out most of the Earth’s power grid if it happened again today,  It actually set some telegraph equipment on fire.

Question: Can we harden the grid to prepare for a Carrington event?  For one thing, we need to be able to make more transformers right here in the US. (See my Issues blog, May 13, 2014, and Book Review blog Oct. 20, 2012 for Oak Ridge study.) 

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