The solar downside

Posted on March 8, 2012


Solar FlareNot all is well on the solar front, despite the plummetting costs of solar panel production during 2011 (see our article Solar power gets realistic in this issue). We may be able to look forward to more widespread use of solar power in the near future, and along with it electricity that is both cheaper to produce and also free from the effects of climate change from our dirty generation meths currently in use, but the sun puts out a lot more energy than we can ever imagine using for power.

The Sun shows a C3-class solar flare (white ar...While we Earth-bound folks may manage to use less than 20% of what solar power falls on us, or at least on our solar panels, the sun itself pours out a lot more energy than normally reaches us and even what does reach us goes much more to other uses than we can make of it.  One such use, of course, is to pump up the winds, warm the oceans and drive our climate with all the energy it will need. Now, as anyone who has been in a coastal gale will tell you – much less anyone who has been unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a hurricane or tornado – there is one hell of a lot of energy in those weather systems. And all of it comes from the normal state of our sun and travels the 93 million miles between us before it can drive those massively powerful weather forces!

What may be less well-known is that our Earth-bound weather is simply peanuts to the scale of the weather than happens out there on the sun itself. Our local star goes through its own weather in the form of the now familiar sunspot activity that scatters across its surface from time to time. Like our own seasonal variations in weather, the sun also has its seasons and cycles of weather too, although obviously not caused in the same way as those more familiar to us here on Earth.

Coronal Mass Ejection: Artist Concept (NASA, Sun)Roughly every 11 years or so, the solar weather goes ballistic – quite literally – throwing out out massive bursts of solar magnetism in its own solar storms. Over the last year, these have been throwing out ever larger waves of magnetic activity as the sun builds up to another peak of bad weather, known as a solar maximum, which should reach its highest in or around 2013. There is a good deal of speculation that the sun is moving into a “quiet period” rather like the solar minimum of the middle ages in what is sometimes called the Little Ice Age, but even during a quiet time like this the solar maximum cycle still means that huge amounts of magnetic force get hurled out from the surface of the sun, often along with vast waves of solar matter known as a Coronal Mass Ejection.

Now space, as Douglas Adams said in his Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, is big. Very big… but even so, there is still only a 360 degree range for the sun to spit out these vast amounts of power – and we are out here in front of one of those limited number of directions it can throw it. In the past, these storms have caused extra current in power lines that have destroyed mains transformers and led to blackouts of power. This time, we are more reliant than ever before on those cables, transformers and power systems to keep our civilisation ticking over – not to mention all our space-based operations that are also in the way of high energy storm fronts being thrown out from the sun.

Northern LightsIn short, never before have we been more vulnerable to the effects of solar storms and right now we are heading into a time when we can expect more of them than for the past decade or more. Even our aircraft are vulnerable, partciularly when they fly over the planet’s poles which they now do more than they ever did before. Electrical forces driven by the solar storms can pour to Earth at the poles, causing not only our glorious auroras such as the Northern Lights but also playing havoc with the electrical systems of our aircraft. And our aircraft are now more dependant than ever on those electrical systems.

We may be able to thank our good fortune that we are down here where it is safer rather than stuck out on the International Space Station, where a solar storm will fling extra doses of radiation at whoever is up there at the time, and that the current solar maximum will be a weak one by the standard of our local star. Even so, it is no reason to be complacent about what is coming up over the next few years. In 1989, also during another solar peak, Ontario found itself without power for nine hours after its circuits were blown by a solar storm. Even in 1859, during another weak solar cycle, a solar storm made telegraph wires shoot sparks and start fires.

You have got the opportunity for flares,” warns David Hathaway of NASA, based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, “and they can be big ones.” We would warn you to watch this space for news – but, of course, just as the old wire telegraph was at risk two centuries ago our own internet services are at risk today. So watch the skies and keep your fingers crossed that all will be well… and remember that for each of you it probably will be.