Every so often, an explosion of radiation, solar wind, magnetic field and energy erupts from the surface of the sun. Occasionally, it is pointed right at our planet — invisible to the naked eye but posing a significant threat to our electronic infrastructure.
Officials take steps to mitigate the damage and impact, and you rarely hear about it. Most of these events are manageable with little inconvenience to our everyday lives. But, in fact, geomagnetic storms post the greatest threat to the electric power grid. Apocalyptic scenarios of weeks — even months — with no electricity have motivated lawmakers to plan protections from such a crippling blow.
In his 2018 budget request, President Trump proposed a cut that would eliminate the program that detects these storms. The program’s data is used in alerts that protect the power grid, our satellites and other electronic infrastructure, and it costs $1.9 million a year to run, or 0.000045 percent of the U.S. federal budget in 2017.
Geomagnetic storms — disturbances to the normal state of Earth’s magnetic field — result from energized solar wind. The solar wind is always blowing, but sometimes it’s particularly — windy. The largest storms usually are sparked by “solar wind gusts” called coronal mass ejections. The geomagnetic field fluctuates wildly during a storm, like the wind during a hurricane, and that creates electrical currents here on Earth. They can be intense and damaging to transformers in the power grid.
The idea that the storms could cause long power outages and damage to our infrastructure is not speculative. And, given past events, it doesn’t take much to see how an event like this can cause international chaos.
In March 1989, a severe geomagnetic storm tripped the circuit breakers on Quebec’s power grid. The power went out for nine hours across the entire province, affecting its millions of residents. Meanwhile, the aurora borealis could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida and — being 1989 — people worried that nuclear war had begun. In Russia, radio broadcasts from Europe were disrupted, leaving residents to believe the Soviets had intentionally blocked them.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s Geomagnetism Program, which Trump proposes to cut, is a central player in the effort to deal with this threat. The group not only operates the magnetometers that measure the changes in the magnetic field but also leads the efforts to better understand the conductivity of Earth. In terms of the effect, it’s analogous to eliminating the National Hurricane Center.