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Friday, May 10, 2024

A G4 solar storm ensues

A couple of months ago, The New Yorker's journalistic ninja Kathryn Schulz wrote about the adverse potentials posed by solar storm eruptions.

Well, this weekend, here we are.
What a Major Solar Storm Could Do to Our Planet
Disturbances on the sun may have the potential to devastate our power grid and communication systems. When the next big storm arrives, will we be prepared for it?
By Kathryn Schulz
February 26, 2024
...Regular, Earth-based weather is such a fundamental part of our lives that we are almost always aware of it and very often obsessed with it; it is the subject of everything from idle chitchat to impassioned political debate. By contrast, most people have no idea that there is weather in outer space, let alone what its fluctuations might mean for our planet. That’s because, unlike everyday weather, you can’t experience space weather directly. It doesn’t make you hot or cold, doesn’t flood yoYou are probably familiar with the Earth’s magnetic field, which makes all life here possible by deflecting dangerous radiation from outer space. If you could see that field, it would look like a relatively tidy series of rings surrounding our planet, flowing out at the South Pole and reëntering at the North. The solar magnetic field does not look like that. That’s largely because, although the sun is three hundred thousand times more massive than the Earth, no part of it is solid. Instead, it is made of plasma, that strange and mesmerizing fourth state of matter. (Heat up a liquid and it turns into a gas. Heat up a gas and it turns into a plasma, a glowing slurry of electrically charged particles.) As a result, the sun doesn’t have to rotate rigidly, as our planet must. One rotation of the Earth takes twenty-four hours in both Ecuador and Antarctica, but one rotation of the sun takes approximately twenty-five days at its equator and thirty-three days at its poles.

This uneven rotation wreaks havoc on the sun’s magnetic field. Imagine a race in which eight people are lined up on a track, holding on to the same long elastic ribbon. The starting gun fires and the people start running. The two in the middle are the fastest and the two on the ends are the slowest, so after a while the middle two are far ahead and the ribbon looks like this: > . If the race kept going and the runners’ speeds remained constant, the two middle runners would eventually lap the others, and the ribbon would cross over itself. The longer the race lasted, the more tangled the ribbon would become.

That’s what happens to solar-magnetic-field lines. They twist and crisscross until clusters of them pop up from the sun’s surface, in huge loops that generate enormous amounts of energy. (Think of the energy stored in a rubber band when it is twisted and stretched. Now imagine that the rubber band is a hundred thousand miles long.) The ends of these loops are sunspots, the phenomenon that Carrington observed in 1859. He could see them readily enough for two reasons. The first is that they are darker than their surroundings, because they are a couple of thousand degrees cooler; the intensity of their magnetic fields hinders the flow of hot gas across the sun. The second is that they are large. An average sunspot is the size of the Earth, while the biggest ones can be ten times larger.

Forecasters like Ken Tegnell watch sunspots for the same reason that regular meteorologists watch low-pressure areas in the tropics: to see if a storm is forming. This happens when one of those twisted magnetic fields suddenly rips apart, then snaps back together again. That rearrangement returns the magnetic field to a more stable, lower-energy state, while releasing the excess energy into space in two different forms. The first is a solar flare: a burst of radiation that can range across the electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma rays and X rays to radio waves and visible light. Solar flares contain a colossal amount of energy—enough, in a large one, to meet our planet’s power needs for the next fifteen or twenty thousand years. The second is a coronal mass ejection: a billion-ton bubble of magnetized plasma that explodes off the surface of the sun. These two phenomena can occur separately, but when large ones occur together they mark the beginning of a major solar storm...

...One of the eminences in the field of space-weather studies is Daniel Baker, who was the head of space-plasma physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a division chief at nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center before going to the University of Colorado to lead its Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “I do not want to be unduly alarmist,” Baker told me. “But I do want to be duly alarmist.” Like so much American infrastructure, he notes, our bulk-power system is underfunded and aging, while demand on it keeps rising—not only from population growth but from an incommensurate increase in our energy use. As a result, he says, the grid is operating “closer and closer to its maximum stress level.” In that condition, it cannot easily absorb the additional stress of a solar storm.

Our aging grid could be updated, but the factors that make doing so expensive and time-consuming will also dramatically compound the effects of a severe solar storm. “Transformers are not just something you can go to Home Depot and buy,” Baker points out; each one is idiosyncratic, a half-million-pound object designed specifically for one of the fifteen hundred-plus entities, from publicly traded companies to energy coöperatives, that together constitute the power grid. As a result, transformers can’t be stockpiled. They are almost always built to spec, and they are almost all made abroad, which increases shipping times and leaves them vulnerable to political conflict and supply-chain issues. Even under optimal circumstances, the typical lead time to replace a transformer is at least a year. If enough of them fail in a solar storm, the recovery will not be measured in days (the length of time it took to get the power back after the Texas winter storms) or weeks (the length of time it took after Hurricane Katrina). It will be measured, almost unthinkably, in months and years.

That’s one reason Craig Fugate, the former fema administrator, thinks the one-to-two-trillion-dollar figure in the N.A.S. report is “probably on the low side.” But he also raises a problem that extends beyond the power grid: because solar storms affect an unusually wide geographic area and an unusually broad range of technologies, they are more likely than other disasters to cause cascading failures. A malfunction in one part of the grid forces electricity to flow elsewhere, overburdening a second part, which is then more likely to malfunction as well; the more such problems you string together, the greater the burden on the remaining parts, and the more likely a catastrophic failure. And what is true of the disaster is also true of the disaster response. Unlike terrestrial hazards, solar storms are not, in fema-speak, “geofenced.” They can affect large areas of the world, which minimizes access to outside help in the aftermath. If an earthquake devastates Los Angeles, aid can pour in from neighboring regions. But, if a solar storm devastates New York, anywhere close enough to help will likely be devastated, too...
Subscriber-walled long-read. Totally worth it. We'll see what happens.

On the evening news just now: "Major Geomagnetic Storm Warning Issued."

Above, Maine Aurora Borealis photo, from WaPo.


While we're riffing on Kathryn Schulz, "The Really Big One."
...Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada. The “Cascadia” part of its name comes from the Cascade Range, a chain of volcanic mountains that follow the same course a hundred or so miles inland. The “subduction zone” part refers to a region of the planet where one tectonic plate is sliding underneath (subducting) another. Tectonic plates are those slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans. Most of the time, their movement is slow, harmless, and all but undetectable. Occasionally, at the borders where they meet, it is not.

Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.

Without moving your hands, curl your right knuckles up, so that they point toward the ceiling. Under pressure from Juan de Fuca, the stuck edge of North America is bulging upward and compressing eastward, at the rate of, respectively, three to four millimetres and thirty to forty millimetres a year. It can do so for quite some time, because, as continent stuff goes, it is young, made of rock that is still relatively elastic. (Rocks, like us, get stiffer as they age.) But it cannot do so indefinitely. There is a backstop—the craton, that ancient unbudgeable mass at the center of the continent—and, sooner or later, North America will rebound like a spring. If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—the magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6. That’s the big one. If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That’s the very big one.

Flick your right fingers outward, forcefully, so that your hand flattens back down again. When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthqu..ake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs fema’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America, outside of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which killed upward of a hundred thousand people. By comparison, roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. fema projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” Murphy says.

In fact, the science is robust, and one of the chief scientists behind it is Chris Goldfinger. Thanks to work done by him and his colleagues, we now know that the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three. The odds of the very big one are roughly one in ten. Even those numbers do not fully reflect the danger—or, more to the point, how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is to face it. The truly worrisome figures in this story are these: Thirty years ago, no one knew that the Cascadia subduction zone had ever produced a major earthquake. Forty-five years ago, no one even knew it existed...
A long-read. She got a Pulitzer for it. Unsurpringly
My elder grandson Keenan, his wife KJ, and my great grandson Kai are about to relocate from Kansas City to the Seattle area (KJ's sister lives there). This kind of stuff scares the stew outa me.

I have a long PacNW history. See here and here. Both of my now-late daughters were born there (1968, 1970).
Kathryn is married to her New Yorker colleague Casey Cep. I read Casey's debut book this week. A totally fine, compelling piece of serious work. That had not been on my radar.

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