'Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun. Oh, but Mama, that's where the fun is'
No one understands Bruce Springsteen's song Blinded by the Light more than William Murtagh. In a small government office near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Murtagh and other federal employees monitor the sun 24 hours a day, waiting for it to erupt and fling a cloud of super-heated, super-charged gas towards Earth.
The Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., sends alerts to power grids, airlines and oil drillers on the risks of geomagnetic storms that can disrupt communications and electric power.
The centre also may provide the first clue to the worst-case scenario described in academic and government reports: widespread power outages, food shortages and trillions of dollars in economic damages. The reinsurance industry is increasingly sounding alarms, calling space weather a potential hazard in today's wired world.
While the U.S. government has taken steps to prepare for a mega-storm from space, the centre is often able to provide only an estimated 30-minute warning of geomagnetic disruptions. The government spends less than $10 million on the facility, which must fight annually for funding within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The little office relies on data from aging satellites it doesn't control and need to be replaced.
What the public and Washington may have forgotten is the long history of geomagnetic storms. "It is in the human nature to assess the threat based on your own lifespan," said Murtagh, a scientist who is the centre's program co-ordinator and has a background in forecasting.
In March 1989, the Hydro-Québec power system collapsed during a geomagnetic disturbance, leaving six million people without electricity in a blackout that lasted more than nine hours. Montreal's subway system was paralyzed in morning rush hour.
The storm may have come close to "toppling power systems from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. to the Midwest," John Kappenman, a space-weather consultant, wrote in a 2010 report for the federally funded Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has added the Pacific Northwest to that list.
A 2008 report published by the National Academy of Sciences drew more attention to the risks. It cited Kappenman's work, which said a severe storm could zap hundreds of the U.S. grid's high-voltage transformers, leaving more than 130 million people in the dark for months or longer, with economic costs possibly reaching several trillion dollars.
"The National Academy report changed everything," said Bob Rutledge, who's in charge of the space centre's forecast office. "There's a lot of disagreement on this, but it put this on the radar."
Today, the space-weather office has about 40,000 subscribers worldwide for its emailed alerts, including watches giving a day or more of advance notice of possible events and roughly 30-minute warnings for imminent storms.
Alerts go to grids, airlines, satellite firms, governments and companies using satellite-based, high-precision GPS services for mining, land surveys and deep-sea drilling, Murtagh said.
Geomagnetic storms are typically associated with coronal mass ejections or violent blasts of hot, magnetized gas from the sun. When those clouds slam into the Earth's magnetic field -- the fastest in less than a day -- they may result in geomagnetic storms.
The mother of modern geomagnetic storms is known as the Carrington Event. In August and September of 1859, auroras lit up the skies from Honolulu to Queensland in Australia. Telegraph networks around the world experienced outages.
It's hard to say when another big one will arrive. If a Carrington-level storm were to strike again, zapping the North American electric grid, it could be a disaster.
It might damage transformers across the grid, leaving as many as 40 million people in the U.S. without power for 16 days to two years, according to a report last year by Lloyd's of London, the world's oldest insurance company. Long-term outages risk disrupting financial markets and triggering "major and widespread social unrest," with estimated economic costs as high as $2.6 trillion, Lloyd's said.
The apocalyptic scenarios have their skeptics.
Frank Koza, executive director of infrastructure planning for regional grid operator PJM Interconnection, said he doesn't think transformers would simultaneously fail in large numbers and lead to the long-term outages described by Kappenman.
"I'm struggling with that severe event John has proposed," said Koza. PJM operates a good chunk of the U.S. power grid in a 13-state network in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
Federal regulators have forced power companies to develop standards to protect the grid, though serious improvements will only come with "wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides," Kappenman said.
He said the government has been slow to replace older satellites providing space-weather data and to bolster the small office, which Kappenman calls underfunded and under-appreciated.
-- Bloomberg News