NASA's new IRIS telescope could foresee extreme solar storms

Scientists worry an extreme solar storm could cause blackouts of as long as two years in the U.S. (see video below)

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"When that magnetic field hits the Earth's magnetic field, we have two magnetic fields interacting and you create electrical currents," said Karel Schrijver, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin Space Systems' advanced technology center in Palo Alto, California. Lockheed Martin built the spectrograph that lies at the heart of IRIS' observations of the sun.

The electrical currents will run through any conductor on Earth, Schrijver said, and have their greatest effect on high-voltage power lines that sit at the heart of the electric grid. The lines are like inter-city freeways for electricity, carrying power across vast distances at voltages as high as 765,000 volts. Large transformers are used to "step down" the voltage where the lines connect with regional distribution systems, and it is those transformers that are at risk. If the geomagnetic storm is large enough, the induced currents can melt the transformers.

One of the strongest major storms in recent memory occurred in March 1989. Over a period of several minutes, the Hydro Quebec power grid in eastern Canada collapsed and 6 million customers lost power. The blackout lasted almost nine hours and caused an estimated C$2 billion in economic losses -- and it could have been worse. The effects almost cascaded to regional power grids, which could have blacked out the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S.

Scientists and power grid operators worry about the prospect of something much larger, and such an event would not be without precedent.

Over the final days of August and first days of September 1859, an extreme solar storm occurred that ranks as the strongest ever recorded. It enabled amateur astronomers to make the first-ever observations of solar flares, and such giant storms are now named after one of those astronomers, Richard Carrington.

The Carrington event was so strong that aurorae, usually confined to the far north, could be seen in the night sky as far south as the Caribbean. Electricity still wasn't widely in use, but the storm shut down parts of the international telegraph network. In some places, telegraph lines were reported to be sparking, and The New York Times reported from Montreal that the Canadian Telegraph Co. took five hours to send a 400-word report because of the bad conditions.

"So completely were the wires under the influence of the Aurora Borealis, it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line was closed for the night," the newspaper reported on Aug. 30, 1859.

Historical records suggest Carrington-level events occur every 50 to 250 years, so Earth is now at the 150-year sweetspot for a repeat.

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