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Depending On Power Grids And Satellite Communications

By James Donahue

Advances in electronic technology and the amazing links to space satellites that make it possible for instant world-wide communications, tracking devices that not only guide ships at sea and automobiles on the highway have changed the way people all over the world live and work. But is there not a danger to placing too much dependence on satellite based electronics?

John Kappenman, a Duluth electrical engineer, notes that there has been a history of major electromagnetic storms on the Sun that have had the capability of knocking out satellites and even the Earth’s electrical power grid.

A recent column in the Huffington Post by Lawrence Joseph, author of a newly published book, Aftermath, noted that Kappenman points to massive EMP blasts powerful enough to cause large-scale blackouts that occurred in 1859 and again in 1921. Then on March 13, 1989, two smaller solar blast, both about a tenth the size of the ones recorded in 1859 and 1921, shutdown the Hydro-Quebec electric utility, leaving millions of customers in Quebec in the dark for nine hours.

Yet another hit occurred on Halloween, 2003. While much more powerful than the 1989 storm, Joseph noted that most people in the world escaped its effects because the blast hit at the poles and missed the largely populated areas. It caused a brief blackout in Malmo, Sweden and knocked out fourteen electric transformers in southern South Africa.

Kappenman warns that it may only be a matter of time before we are hit by another major blast that causes some real trouble. 

Our complex interwoven power grid as it exists today, and our dependence on satellites for telephone, television, radio, the tracking everything from ships at sea to packages in shipment, a solar storm of that magnitude might shut down everything for months or even years.

Joseph, whose book also explores Kappenman’s research, warns that “more than 100 million Americans could be affected” by such a blackout for months if not years.

Kappenman was a major contributor to a report published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2008, titled “Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts.” The report paints a grim picture of the impact a power and communication black-out of that magnitude might have on our lives.

It would amount to events much worse than the loss of telephone, Internet and television communications, that people all over the world not only use for both business and pleasure. The NAS report suggests that it also would include “disruption of the transportation, communication, banking and finance systems, and government services, the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration.”

Kappenman said the catastrophic events could multiply if the black-out hits a vast part of the nation. For example, he told Joseph that “oil and water pumping would cease, natural gas, too. There would be no ability to refuel a vehicle.” He said railroads would be stopped. Without fuel repair crews would be hampered from repairing the damaged transformers and getting power restored. It would be impossible to transport food, water and medical supplies to people in the affected cities and towns.

In space, geomagnetic storms actually can heat the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This can cause drag that changes the orbit of a satellite or cause them to fall to Earth and burn up. Needless to say the storms also can affect the electronics within the satellites, possibly disabling them completely.

While a solar blast might only affect one part of the planet, with severe damage to systems in only one region of the world, the report said that alone could impact the entire nation if not everyone in the world.

If Kappenman is correct, and common wisdom suggests that he knows what he is talking about, now that we have blindly set ourselves up for a super electronic disaster, is there anything that we can do to protect ourselves?

Of course there is. He believes the grid can be protected from solar storms by installing super surge suppressors like the ones we use to protect our computers and plasma televisions in our homes. He did not have a plan for protecting satellites and all of the communication systems that now depend on them.

Kappenman says surge suppressors would work because solar EMP blasts discharge massive electrical currents into the earth. This is what messes up the electrical grid system. But large surge suppressors placed between the ground and the transformers would capture the blast coming up from the ground before it hits the power system.

Is anybody listening? Will power companies make the investment and prepare for the eventuality of such a disaster? Probably not. Kappenman said surge suppressors big enough to do the job would cost up to $50,000 each, and at there are about 5,000 operating transformers in the North American grid.

While common sense tells us it would be money well spent, we know from experience that few corporate leaders in America are not much using common sense in what they do these days.