On Tuesday, a pinkish, spirally wisp dangled outward from the sun. Those watching this summer's rare total solar eclipse would not have missed it. A live-feed of the celestial event passing over Chile and Argentina provided a close-up of the fetal fiery ejection as telescopes zoomed in on the dark disk closing over the sun’s edge.
This was a solar flare in the making. Most such phenomena are not noteworthy. But, in recorded history, many have careened directly toward earth, carrying the power of up to 10 billion atomic bombs.
“Solar eclipses are a public reminder that space weather is all around us,” said David DeVorkin a historian at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).
Last week, millions looked up to awe at the heavens as a small slice of Chile and Argentina witnessed the full eclipse. Meanwhile, many eclipse-chasing scientists worked to better predict these solar flares, and the fire balls they expel known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), so that they don’t catch us on our heels and cause mass disruptions of earth's electric grid.
“They literally fry transformers,” said Robert Leamon, a NASA-affiliated research scientist.
This is exactly what happened in March 1989 when the entire province of Quebec in Canada went dark. Three days prior, scientists observed a powerful explosion from the sun. When the CME — carrying its own ball of magnetism — struck earth’s magnetic field, it created a violent electrical change in the ground. That charge, according to NASA, found a weakness in Canada’s electrical grid. A NASA rendering demonstrated how this massive blackout was visible from space. The “northern lights” extended down from the poles and was visible in Cuba.
The Canadian event and last week's developing solar flare proves the earth is at the mercy of space weather, including the sun’s burps and power-charged belches. According to scientists, future events like this can be mitigated in two major ways. And policy plays a big role in making that happen.
“Sure, that’s a concern at this point in our Space Age,” says DeVorkin of NASM.
But that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. The Trump administration's focus on creating a Space Force largely excludes this type of solar research. Most space-related investment under Trump would be heavily channeled to activities giving the U.S. a military advantage in outer space. Understanding the mysteries of the sun — and how it interferes with infrastructure and daily life on planet earth — doesn't appear to be on this administration’s space menu.
And scientists believe the next presidential term starting in 2021 will be one where the nation is particularly vulnerable to solar flares. Many 2020 candidates have proposed infrastructure plans that could mitigate the effects of solar weather, but those have not fully reached the media spotlight. Tuesday’s eclipse was a visible reminder that we are it the sun’s mercy, though not entirely helpless if better policy choices are made.
Experts say the first way to stop solar weather from becoming an earthly problem is to fund better forecasting.
According to Leamon, Hydro Quebec, one of Canada's public electric utilities, did not have a comprehensive heads-up before the 1989 event. In theory, a power company could have avoided tripped up circuit breakers by rerouting energy production and transfer to lesser affected area of the grid if it had known ahead of time of the possibility of disruptions.
“We’re very good at now-casting,” said Leamon, which he explained as the ability to see, with massive telescopes, a CME lift off the sun and then tell an affected region during the 24 to 36 hours it takes for the fireball to reach earth. “But we’re not very good at forecasting.”
Paul Bryans was on top of a windy peak in the Atacama desert on Tuesday trying to make these “now-casts” better and cheaper. He was testing compact instruments during the eclipse’s fleeting masking of the sun. As a project scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Bryans is interested in attaching his small, low-cost sensor to miniature satellites, which are growing in popularity.
The second thing policymakers could do to prevent problems is upgrade the nation’s power grid.
Today, the Lower 48 states operate a patchwork of regional grids that don’t necessarily communicate well with each other. Texas practically has its own grid. If the nation’s grid was more connected across the expanse of the Lower 48 states, it might better absorb the magnetic shock of a CME directly hitting earth.
“A bulletproof vest works by displacing the direct impact of a bullet across a larger area. A connected power grid would work in the same way,” explains Leamon.
In short, experts said we wouldn't be able to stop the sun’s fiery “bullets.” But policymakers could use infrastructure improvements to prevent a fatal hit.
The 2003 Halloween storms served up a visual motivation for lawmakers. The CME-related storms resulted in an apocalyptic orange sky over Houston and created the “scariest” public show of magnetic space effects on earth. An online image search of the storms turns up scenes straight out of the TV show Stranger Things.
Space weather’s intrusion on daily life is not new. In 1859, the most powerful solar superstorm ever recorded completely fried the nation’s telegraph system. When shocks flew across the Victorian Internet, the system failed, telegraph papers caught fire, and a Washington, D.C.-based operator almost died from electrocution.
What is making news, at least in space science circles, are scientists’ prediction that the next five years may produce the most solar flares in decades.
Leamon puts 2021 as the earliest possible peak in the sun’s cycle. A more conservative consensus reached at a NASA-convened meeting last year places that peak between 2023 and 2025.
Better put on those eclipse-watching glasses.
Note to readers: Dino Grandoni is on vacation and will be back at the helm of this newsletter on Monday, July 15. Meanwhile, we have an all-star lineup of Post writers to keep you up-to-date on all your energy and environmental needs. Thanks for reading.
— Trump to deliver speech on environmental record: President Trump is planning a speech Monday to tout the administration's “environmental leadership," despite its efforts to roll back many of President Obama's environmental regulations. At an afternoon event titled “Presidential Remarks on America’s Environmental Leadership,” Trump plans to “go on the offensive against criticism of his industry-friendly rollbacks of environment protections,” The Guardian reports. “Trump will tout America’s clean air and water, although his administration has advanced many efforts that experts say have undercut the country’s environmental record.”
Here's what the White House says: “The media has largely ignored the fact that the United States under President Trump’s leadership and policies has made the air, water, and environment cleaner and he’s going to share that with the American people,” deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere told our colleague Jacqueline Alemany in a statement. “We are the party of conservation, environmental protection, and expanding responsible clean energy technologies while the Democrats’ radical Green New Deal would outlaw cows, cars, and planes, crippling America’s economy and crushing the poorest communities across the globe that rely solely on fossil fuels to survive.”
Fact check: The Energy 202 wrote last week about the president's history of conflating climate change and clean air and in March, Energy 202 author Dino Grandoni explained how cows and hamburgers became the rallying cry from Republicans against the Green New Deal resolution, though the "resolution itself does not mention beef, burgers or anything similar."
— Meanwhile: Climate change is one of many issues where the president’s approval rating registers with voters as a net negative, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released over the weekend, which showed Trump with a net negative of 33 points on climate change. Climate change trails other issues like the economy, health care and immigration as top issues for Americans ahead of the 2020 election. But The Post’s Dan Balz and Emily Guskin report that “still over half say it’s at least ‘very important.’”
— Iran breaches uranium limit: A spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organized said Iran has passed the uranium enrichment limit set by the nuclear deal in 2015, adding that "there were no obstacles to Tehran enriching at even higher levels." "Speaking to local news agencies, Behrouz Kamalvandi said Iran has exceeded the 3.67 percent limit and was now enriching uranium at 4.5 percent, a rate far below the 90 percent needed to produce a nuclear weapon," The Post's Erin Cunningham reports. "...Iran had said Sunday it would shortly boost uranium enrichment above the cap, prompting a warning from President Trump, who has pressured Tehran to renegotiate the pact."
— Corn wars: The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed increasing the mandated amount of biofuel blended into the nation’s gasoline and diesel supply. The proposal would up the mandate to 20.04 billion gallons of required renewable fuel in 2020, up from 19.92 billion gallons in 2019. “The initiative aims to balance two competing interests -- oil and agriculture -- but left both sides unsatisfied Friday,” Bloomberg reports. “Oil industry representatives say the Trump administration is bypassing opportunities to ratchet down requirements that displace petroleum-based gasoline. And renewable fuel advocates say the EPA is failing to account for agency decisions to waive refineries from billions of gallons worth of biofuel quotas.”
— He’s running?: Months after announcing in Iowa his decision not to run for president in 2020, billionaire investor and environmental activist Tom Steyer is now reportedly ready to join the crowded Democratic field. He has "privately told friends and associates in recent days that he plans to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to two Democrats familiar with the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly," The Post's Robert Costa reports. "...A Steyer campaign would likely focus on impeaching and defeating President Trump and climate change — two causes that have animated Steyer’s advocacy and where he has become a prominent national voice." No firm plans have been made for an announcement, but Steyer could enter the race on Tuesday, Costa adds.
— Harvard’s climate dilemma: More than 300 Harvard facility have signed a petition calling on the university to divest from its fossil fuel stocks. Leading alumni are pushing the institution to divest its $39 billion endowment from fossil fuel investments, a group that includes former U.S. senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado, former vice president Al Gore and Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. “With climate change policy lagging in the United States, many are hoping that a push by the nation’s academic elites will provide impetus for wider action,” he writes. “So far, however, only 47 U.S. colleges and universities have chosen to divest and only 10 have taken that step since 2017, according to the environmental activist group 350.org. And the Harvard faculty members who have signed the divestment petition represent less than 14 percent of the faculty.”
— The Sunshine State trails on solar: Solar advocates are pointing fingers at the state’s utilities as the main reason that solar power has not taken off in Florida. “They have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying, ad campaigns and political contributions. And when homeowners purchase solar equipment, the utilities have delayed connecting the systems for months,” the New York Times reports. It’s also one of eight states in the country that blocks the sale of solar electricity to consumers unless the power is provided by a utility. “I’ve had electric utility executives say with a straight face that we can’t have solar power in Florida because we have so many cloudy days,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) told the Times. “I have watched as other states have surpassed us. I think that is largely because of the political influence of the investor-owned utilities.”
— The fate of two nuclear plants: Even after missing a June 30 deadline, Ohio lawmaker said they would continue crafting legislation to keep the state’s two nuclear plants operating. “The oil-and-gas industry, environmental groups and renewable energy companies have lined up to oppose the legislation, as Ohio becomes the latest state to wrestle with balancing a diverse energy portfolio with clean-energy goals and local economic interests,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “…The company said this past Monday that it remains optimistic that lawmakers will pass a bill by July 17, indicating it would wait a little longer. But it cautioned that without legislation it would ‘remain on path for safe deactivation and decommissioning.’”
— Climate costs: By the year 2100, the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics estimates climate change could lead to $69 trillion in costs for the global economy. “The new report predicts that rising temperatures will ‘universally hurt worker health and productivity’ and that more frequent extreme weather events ‘will increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property,’” Mufson reports.
—One way cities are dealing with relentless floods: As climate change spurs extreme weather, rising sea-levels and increased flooding, a program in Nashville is trying to help people move out of flood-prone areas by making an offer to buy their homes. “If the owners accept the offer, they move out, the city razes the house and prohibits future development. The acquired land becomes an absorbent creekside buffer, much of it serving as parks with playgrounds and walking paths,” the New York Times reports. Although other cities have similar relocation programs, the Times adds “disaster mitigation experts consider Nashville’s a model that other communities would be wise to learn from: The United States spends far more on helping people rebuild after disasters than preventing problems.”
— Man it’s a hot one: Facing a record high 90-degree day, the city of Anchorage issued a burn ban and had to cancel its Independence Day fireworks show last week. The Fourth of July temperature broke its previous all-time high record of 85 degrees from June 1969, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports.
"With the combined forces of climate change that has disrupted temperature trends around the state, a remarkable dearth of ice in the Bering Sea and weather patterns generating a general heat wave, Alaska is facing a Fourth of July unlike any before," the New York Times wrote last week. “This is unprecedented,” said Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. “I tease people that Anchorage is the coolest city in the country — and climatically that is true — but right now we are seeing record heat.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy holds a legislative hearing on Tuesday.
- The House Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on Water Resources Development Acts on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on glacial and ice sheet melt and climate change on Thursday.
— Here's a look at the president's extravagant Fourth of July celebration: