COLUMN-Protecting the power grid and GPS from solar storms: Kemp

Mon Apr 8, 2013 11:31am EDT
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By John Kemp

LONDON, April 8 (Reuters) - Power networks, pipelines, radio communications and the global positioning system (GPS) are all entering a period of increased risk of outages from geomagnetic storms as the solar activity cycle peaks in 2013.

So far the increase in solar activity has been smaller than expected.

Nevertheless, there is no reason for complacency. Major geomagnetic storms are more frequent during the periods of maximum solar activity that occur every 11 years but can occur at any time, sometimes with serious results. Grid operators might have just 30 minutes notice of an incoming storm to take emergency action. ()

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado, classifies storms on a five-point scale.

Minor (G1) and moderate (G2) storms are relatively common, occurring on about 1,200 days out of every 11-year cycle, but are barely perceptible. Most cause only small voltage fluctuations in power grids and faded signals on high-frequency radio networks. For a lucky few, the northern lights (aurora borealis) may be visible as far south as Idaho and New York.

Severe (G4) and extreme (G5) storms are less frequent, occurring on just 60 and four days, respectively, in every 11 years but do much worse damage.

In an extreme storm, power systems experience widespread voltage control problems, with the risk of blackouts or complete collapse. Electric currents reaching hundreds of amperes surge through pipelines. Satellite navigation may degrade or be unavailable for days at a time, and the aurora is visible in Florida and Texas, according to NOAA.   Continued...