Telegraphs Ran on Electric Air in Crazy 1859 Magnetic Storm
BY Alexis Madrigal  /  September 2, 2009

On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air. In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them. The New York Times ran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose. “With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this color were most abundant to the northeast and northwest of the zenith,” the Times wrote. “There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid. There was no figure the imagination could not find portrayed by these instantaneous flashes.”

As if what was happening in the heavens wasn’t enough, the communications infrastructure just beginning to stretch along the eastern seaboard was going haywire from all the electromagnetism. “We observed the influence upon the lines at the time of commencing business — 8 o’clock — and it continued so strong up to 9 1/2 as to prevent any business from being done, excepting by throwing off the batteries at each end of the line and working by the atmospheric current entirely!” the astonished telegraph operators of Boston wrote in a statement that appeared in The New York Times later that week. The Boston operator told his Portland, Maine counterpart, “Mine is also disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?” Portland responded, “Better than with our batteries on,” before finally concluding with Yankee pluck, “Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?”

In terms of the relationship between the Earth and its star, it is probably the weirdest 24-hours on record. People struggled to explain what had happened. NASA’s David Hathaway, a solar astronomer, said that people in the solar community were beginning to understand that there was a relationship between events on the sun and magnetism on Earth. But that knowledge was not widely disseminated. Another theory held that auroras were actually atmospheric phenomena, that is to say, weather of a particular type. Proof of various sorts was offered. Auroras apparently had a sound, “the noise of crepitation,” or crackling, that marked them as Earth-bound phenomena. Even weirder explanations arose, like meteorologist Ebenezer Miriam’s hilariously quacky quote in The New York Times. “The Aurora (electricity discharged from the craters of volcanoes) either dissolves in the atmosphere, and is thus diffused through space or concentrated into a gelatineus[sic] substance forming meteors, called shooting stars,” Miriam wrote. “These meteors dissolve rapidly in atmospheric air, but sometimes reach the earth before dissolving, and resemble thin starch.”

But some scientists were on the right track. Eighteen hours before the storm hit, Richard Carrington, a young but well-respected British astronomer, had been making his daily sunspot observations when he saw two brilliant spots of light. We know now that what he was seeing was the heating up of the surface of the sun beyond its standard fusion-powered temperature of about 5,500 degrees Celsius. The energy to do so came from a magnetic explosion as a distended part of the sun’s magnetic field snapped and reconnected. “They give off the energy equivalent of about 10 million atomic bombs in the matter of an hour or two,” Hathaway said. “[The 1859] one was special, and it was noticed because it was a white light flare. It actually heated up the surface of the sun well enough to light up the sun.”

Though back then Carrington didn’t know what he was looking at, five years of staring at the sun had taught him that what he was seeing was unprecedented. When in the wee hours of the next night, the skies all over the globe began turning brilliant colors, Carrington knew he was on to something. “I think that it represents a tipping point in astronomy because for the first time, astronomers had concrete evidence that a force other than gravity could communicate itself across 93 million miles of space,” said Stuart Clark, author of the book The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.

Still, it would be decades before the scientific theory would catch up with the observations. British heavyweights like Lord Kelvin opined that the sun could never deliver the level of energy that had been observed on Earth. Understanding what was happening without understanding how the sun worked or the nature of particles was not exactly easy. “It’s a great example of where theory and observation don’t match up,” Clark said. “The scientific establishment tends to believe the theory, but it’s usually the other way around, and the observations are correct. You have to build up a critical mass of observations to shift the scientific theory.”

Over time, more and more observations did shift the theory, and the sun was held properly responsible for geomagnetic storms. The technological lesson that electrical equipment could be disturbed was largely forgotten, though. When a geomagnetic storm hits the Earth, it shakes the Earth’s magnetosphere. As the magnetized plasma pushes the Earth’s magnetic field lines around, currents flow. Those currents have their own magnetic fields and soon, down at the ground, strong electromagnetic forces are in play. In other words, your telegraph can run on “auroral current.”

Geomagnetic storms, though, can have less benign impacts. On August 4, 1972, a Bell Telephone line running from Chicago to San Francisco got knocked out. Bell Labs researchers wanted to find out why, and their findings led them right back to 1859 and the auroral current. Louis Lanzerotti, now an engineering professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, went digging in the Bell Labs library for similar events and explanations. Along with field research, the history became the core of a new approach to building more robust electrical systems. “We did all this analysis and wrote this paper in ‘74 for the Bell Systems Technical Journal,” Lanzerotti said. “And it really made a helluva of a difference in Bell Systems. They redesigned their power systems.”

The fight to secure the Earth’s technical systems from geomagnetic anomalies continues. Late last year, the National Academies of Science put out a report on severe space weather events. If a storm even approaching 1859 levels were to happen again, they concluded the damage could range upwards of a $1 trillion, largely because of disruptions to the electrical grid. The data on how often huge storms occur is scarce. Ice cores are the main evidence we have outside human historical documents. Charged particles can interact with nitrogen in the atmosphere, creating nitrides. The increased concentration of those molecules can be detected by looking at ice cores, which act like a logbook of the atmosphere at a given time. Over the last 500 years of this data, the 1859 event was twice as big as anything else.

Even so, the sun remains a bit of a mystery, particularly these tremendously energetic events. Scientists like Hathaway are able to describe why one geomagnetic storm might be bigger than another based on the details of how it arose, but they are hard pressed to predict when or why a freakishly large storm might arise. Scientific understanding of how the sun impacts the Earth and its tech-heavy humans isn’t complete, but at least we know when it got its start: the early hours of September 2, 1859. “It’s at that point we realize that these celestial objects affected our technologies and the way we wanted to live our lives,” Stuart said. And it turns out, our burning hot star still does.



BY Dr. Tony Phillips  /   01.21.2009

The problem begins with the electric power grid. “Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend,” the report notes. Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours.

According to the report, power grids may be more vulnerable than ever. The problem is interconnectedness. In recent years, utilities have joined grids together to allow long-distance transmission of low-cost power to areas of sudden demand. On a hot summer day in California, for instance, people in Los Angeles might be running their air conditioners on power routed from Oregon. It makes economic sense—but not necessarily geomagnetic sense. Interconnectedness makes the system susceptible to wide-ranging “cascade failures.”

To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with “water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.”

“The concept of interdependency,” the report notes, “is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power–and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site.”

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921.

“A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.

What’s the solution? The report ends with a call for infrastructure designed to better withstand geomagnetic disturbances, improved GPS codes and frequencies, and improvements in space weather forecasting. Reliable forecasting is key. If utility and satellite operators know a storm is coming, they can take measures to reduce damage—e.g., disconnecting wires, shielding vulnerable electronics, powering down critical hardware. A few hours without power is better than a few weeks.

NASA has deployed a fleet of spacecraft to study the sun and its eruptions. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the twin STEREO probes, ACE, Wind and others are on duty 24/7. NASA physicists use data from these missions to understand the underlying physics of flares and geomagnetic storms; personnel at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center use the findings, in turn, to hone their forecasts. At the moment, no one knows when the next super solar storm will erupt. It could be 100 years away or just 100 days.


Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age
BY Dr. Tony Phillips   /  Sept. 30, 2008

Astronomers who count sunspots have announced that 2008 is now the “blankest year” of the Space Age. As of Sept. 27, 2008, the sun had been blank, i.e., had no visible sunspots, on 200 days of the year. To find a year with more blank suns, you have to go back to 1954, three years before the launch of Sputnik, when the sun was blank 241 times. “Sunspot counts are at a 50-year low,” says solar physicist David Hathaway of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. “We’re experiencing a deep minimum of the solar cycle.”

A spotless day looks like this:

{SOHO image of the sun taken Sept. 27, 2008}

The image, taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on Sept. 27, 2008, shows a solar disk completely unmarked by sunspots. For comparison, a SOHO image taken seven years earlier on Sept. 27, 2001, is peppered with colossal sunspots, all crackling with solar flares: image. The difference is the phase of the 11-year solar cycle. 2001 was a year of solar maximum, with lots of sunspots, solar flares and geomagnetic storms. 2008 is at the cycle’s opposite extreme, solar minimum, a quiet time on the sun.

And it is a very quiet time. If solar activity continues as low as it has been, 2008 could rack up a whopping 290 spotless days by the end of December, making it a century-level year in terms of spotlessness. Hathaway cautions that this development may sound more exciting than it actually is: “While the solar minimum of 2008 is shaping up to be the deepest of the Space Age, it is still unremarkable compared to the long and deep solar minima of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Those earlier minima routinely racked up 200 to 300 spotless days per year.

Some solar physicists are welcoming the lull. “This gives us a chance to study the sun without the complications of sunspots,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Right now we have the best instrumentation in history looking at the sun. There is a whole fleet of spacecraft devoted to solar physics–SOHO, Hinode, ACE, STEREO and others. We’re bound to learn new things during this long solar minimum.”

As an example he offers helioseismology: “By monitoring the sun’s vibrating surface, helioseismologists can probe the stellar interior in much the same way geologists use earthquakes to probe inside Earth. With sunspots out of the way, we gain a better view of the sun’s subsurface winds and inner magnetic dynamo.” “There is also the matter of solar irradiance,” adds Pesnell. “Researchers are now seeing the dimmest sun in their records. The change is small, just a fraction of a percent, but significant. Questions about effects on climate are natural if the sun continues to dim.”

Pesnell is NASA’s project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a new spacecraft equipped to study both solar irradiance and helioseismic waves. Construction of SDO is complete, he says, and it has passed pre-launch vibration and thermal testing. “We are ready to launch! Solar minimum is a great time to go.” Coinciding with the string of blank suns is a 50-year record low in solar wind pressure, a recent discovery of the Ulysses spacecraft. The pressure drop began years before the current minimum, so it is unclear how the two phenomena are connected, if at all. This is another mystery for SDO and the others.

Societal and Economic Impacts
Authors: Committee on the Societal and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather Events: A Workshop, National Research Council

John Kappenman
john [at] metatechcorp [dot] com / kappenman [at] Metatechcorp [dot] com

“The Maya year has a basic unit called Kin, a word that means day, Sun, etc.”


A BAKTUN (def.)
“It contains 144,000 days or 400 tuns or nearly 400 tropical years. The Classic period of Maya civilization occurred during the 8th and 9th baktuns of the current calendrical cycle. The current (13th) baktun will end, or be completed, on (December 21, 2012 using the GMT correlation). This also marks the beginning of the 14th baktun, as such a term is usually used among Mayanists.”

The Geomagnetic Apocalypse — And How to Stop It
BY Brandon Keim  /  April 24, 2009

For scary speculation about the end of civilization in 2012, people usually turn to followers of cryptic Mayan prophecy, not scientists. But that’s exactly what a group of NASA-assembled researchers described in a chilling report issued earlier this year on the destructive potential of solar storms.

Entitled “Severe Space Weather Events — Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts,” it describes the consequences of solar flares unleashing waves of energy that could disrupt Earth’s magnetic field, overwhelming high-voltage transformers with vast electrical currents and short-circuiting energy grids. Such a catastrophe would cost the United States “$1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year,” concluded the panel, and “full recovery could take four to 10 years.” That would, of course, be just a fraction of global damages. Needless to say, shorting out the electrical grid would cause major disruptions to developed nations and their economies.

Worse yet, the next period of intense solar activity is expected in 2012, and coincides with the presence of an unusually large hole in Earth’s geomagnetic shield, meaning we’ll have less protection than usual from the solar flares. The report received relatively little attention, perhaps because of 2012’s supernatural connotations. Mayan astronomers supposedly predicted that 2012 would mark the calamitous “birth of a new era.”

But the report is credible enough that some scientists and engineers are beginning to take the electromagnetic threat seriously. According to Lawrence Joseph, author of “Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization’s End,” “I’ve been following this topic for almost five years, and it wasn’t until the report came out that this really began to freak me out.” Do you think it’s coincidence that the Mayans predicted apocalypse on the exact date when astronomers say the sun will next reach a period of maximum turbulence?
Lawrence Joseph: I have enormous respect for Mayan astronomers. It disinclines me to dismiss this as a coincidence. But I recommend people verify that the Mayans prophesied what people say they did. I went to Guatemala and spent a week with two Mayan shamans who spent 20 years talking to other shamans about the prophecies. They confirmed that the Maya do see 2012 as a great turning point. Not the end of the world, not the great off-switch in the sky, but the birth of the fifth age. Isn’t a great off-switch in the sky exactly what’s described in the report?
Joseph: The chair of the NASA workshop was Dan Baker at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. Some of his comments, and the comments he approved in the report, are very strong about the potential connection between coronal mass ejections and power grids here on Earth. There’s a direct relationship between how technologically sophisticated a society is and how badly it could be hurt. That’s the meta-message of the report. I had the good fortune last week to meet with John Kappenman at MetaTech. He took me through a meticulous two-hour presentation about just how vulnerable the power grid is, and how it becomes more vulnerable as higher voltages are sent across it. He sees it as a big antenna for space weather outbursts. Why is it so vulnerable?
Joseph: Ultra-high voltage transformers  become more finicky as energy demands are greater. Around 50 percent already can’t handle the current they’re designed for. A little extra current coming in at odd times can slip them over the edge. The ultra-high voltage transformers, the 500,000- and 700,000-kilovolt transformers, are particularly vulnerable. The United States uses more of these than anyone else. China is trying to implement some million-kilovolt transformers, but I’m not sure they’re online yet.

Kappenman also points out that when the transformers blow, they can’t be fixed in the field. They often can’t be fixed at all. Right now there’s a one- to three-year lag time between placing an order and getting a new one. According to Kappenman, there’s an as-yet-untested plan for inserting ground resistors into the power grid. It makes the handling a little more complicated, but apparently isn’t anything the operators can’t handle. I’m not sure he’d say these could be in place by 2012, as it’s difficult to establish standards, and utilities are generally regulated on a state-by-state basis. You’d have quite a legal thicket. But it still might be possible to get some measure of protection in by the next solar climax. Why can’t we just shut down the grid when we see a storm coming, and start it up again afterwards?
Joseph: Power grid operators now rely on one satellite called ACE, which sits about a million miles out from Earth in what’s called the gravity well, the balancing point between sun and earth. It was designed to run for five years. It’s 11 years old, is losing steam, and there are no plans to replace it. ACE provides about 15 to 45 minutes of heads-up to power plant operators if something’s coming in. They can shunt loads, or shut different parts of the grid. But to just shut the grid off and restart it is a $10 billion proposition, and there is lots of resistance to doing so. Many times these storms hit at the north pole, and don’t move south far enough to hit us. It’s a difficult call to make, and false alarms really piss people off. Lots of money is lost and damage incurred. But in Kappenman’s view, and in lots of others, this time burnt could really mean burnt. Do you live your life differently now?
Joseph: I’ve been following this topic for almost five years. It wasn’t until the report came out that it began to freak me out. Up until this point, I firmly believed that the possibility of 2012 being catastrophic in some way was worth investigating. The report made it a little too real. That document can’t be ignored. And it was even written before  the THEMIS satellite discovered a gigantic hole in  Earth’s magnetic shield. Ten or twenty times more particles are coming through this crack than expected. And astronomers predict that the way the sun’s polarity will flip in 2012 will make it point exactly the way we don’t want it to in terms of evading Earth’s magnetic field. It’s an astonoshingly bad set of coincidences. If Barack Obama said, “Lets’ prepare,” and there weren’t any bureaucratic hurdles, could we still be ready in time?
Joseph: I believe so. I’d ask the President to slipstream behind stimulus package funds already appropriated for smart grids, which are supposed to improve grid efficiency and help transfer high energies at peak times. There’s a framework there. Working within that, you could carve out some money for the ground resistors program, if those tests work, and have the initial momentum for cutting through the red tape. It’d be a place to start.

CALL FOR RESISTORS talked to Joseph and John Kappenman, CEO of electromagnetic damage consulting company MetaTech, about the possibility of geomagnetic apocalypse — and how to stop it. What’s the problem?
John Kappenman: We’ve got a big, interconnected grid that spans across the country. Over the years, higher and higher operating voltages have been added to it. This has  escalated our vulnerability to geomagnetic storms. These are not a new thing. They’ve probably been occurring for as long as the sun has been around. It’s just that we’ve been unknowingly building an infrastructure that’s acting more and more like an antenna for geomagnetic storms. What do you mean by antenna?
Kappenman: Large currents circulate in the network, coming up from the earth through ground connections at large transformers. We need these for safety reasons, but ground connections provide entry paths for charges that could disrupt the grid. What’s your solution?
Kappenman: What we’re proposing is to add some fairly small and inexpensive resistors in the transformers’ ground onnections. The addition of that little bit of resistance would significantly reduce the amount of the geomagnetically induced currents that flow into the grid. What does it look like?
Kappenman: In its simplest form, it’s something that might be made out of cast iron or stainless steel, about the size of a washing machine. How much would it cost?
Kappenman: We’re still at the conceptual design phase, but we think it’s do-able for $40,000 or less per resistor. That’s less than what you pay for insurance for a transformer. And less than what you’d willingly pay for insurance on civilization.
Kappenman: If you’re talking about the United States, there are about 5,000 transformers to consider this for. The Electromagnetic Pulse Commission recommended it in a report they sent to Congress last year. We’re talking about $150 million or so. It’s pretty small in the grand scheme of things. Big power lines and substations can withstand all the other known environmental challenges. The problem with geomagnetic storms is that we never really understood them as a vulnerability, and had a design code that took them into account. Can it be done in time?
Kappenman: I’m not in the camp that’s certain a big storm will occur in 2012. But given time, a big storm is certain to occur in the future. They have in the past, and they will again. They’re about one-in-400-year events. That doesn’t mean it will be 2012. It’s just as likely that it could occur next week.