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Solar storm of 1859 (wikipedia.org)
109 points by nhkssol on Nov 4, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments

Oh, the Carrington Event again. This has been on HN several times. It ought to be on a list of common misconceptions.

- This has nothing to do with "EMP". That's a big but brief RF pulse with a rise time around 1ns. This is induced DC in long wires over a period of hours.

- The basic effect is that a current is induced in the earth's crust, resulting in a DC voltage between grounds at widely separated points. This is mostly a problem for long AC high-tension power lines using wye-connected transformers at each end which run in the same direction as mountains of igneous rock. The DC component can partially saturate the transformer, using up some of its capacity. If undetected, transformers can overheat, and worst case, burn out. This occurred on March 13, 1989 on some lines in the eastern US.

- PJM, which runs the northeastern US power grid, is now prepared for this. See PJM's training manual for this[1], starting at page 22. They get 1 to 6 days warning from the NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. They have monitoring for unwanted DC flows at multiple points in the power grid. When trouble appears, certain power lines have to have their current reduced.

- A few times a year, more at the top of the sunspot cycle, there are warnings of a potential problem. PJM last issued a warning on August 26, 2018. It didn't progress to an "alert", or actual action. There are people in a control room in Valley Forge, PA, and another backup location, watching this. They can reroute power around the trouble spots, call for extra generation output, and dump some loads if necessary. Load dumping starts with bulk buyers of "interruptible power" - aluminum smelters, Bitcoin mines, etc., which are willing to be the first turned off in exchange for a discount.

- It's not a problem for anything shorter than hundreds of miles. It's not a problem for high-voltage DC power lines, like the Pacific Intertie and the really long ones from western to eastern China. It has zero effect on fiber optics or small devices.

- When you encounter clueless reporters writing about the power grid, aim them at "PJM 101", which is a set of introductory training materials on how the power grid works, written for people who run it.

[1] https://pjm.com/-/media/training/nerc-certifications/gen-exa...

Potentially off-topic, but you how do you know so much? It seems that from law to physics to computer science, you have an absurd level of detailed knowledge. It's incredulous that someone can talk at such great depth about an obscure topic from the top of his head.

I got interested in this back when California was having blackouts because the power industry managed to convince the legislature that a totally free market with an auction every half hour was the way to run the power grid. I wanted to see how other places did it. PJM has a "day ahead" market and a backup spot market, so generating stations mostly know what tomorrow will be like. California now has something similar.

PJM has online training courses. Taking "PJM 101" is worth it to get a sense of how the market system and the actual operation interact. A few hours and you know more about the power grid than 99% of the population, but less than any PJM employee or energy trader.

One of my interests is how market-based systems fail. They're feedback systems with delays. Some of the delays are short; others are measured in years. A point I make regularly is that such systems have no guarantee of stability. In short-term energy markets, the consequences of this are immediate, because there is not much inventory in electricity.

Further to the parents comment, do you use a personal knowledge base? I keep a flat text file, but have been pondering whether it might be worth moving to something a bit more structured.

From practicality perspective, how do you use your personal knowledge base? Do you review it on a regular basis?

I have thoughts of keeping a similar database, but I kept thinking "will I ever use the collected details in the future". When I first started in computers on the Atari 8bit in Australia, I would collect as many of its software as possible, due to its scarcity. Looking back on it, I would ever only used 1% of it. The rest would be sitting it on the floppies gathering dust. I fear that the database that I collect would end up in a similar situation.

I don't use anything writen down myself. Most of the time I try to focus on basic principals and the connection of things to remember stuff. Downside is that the concrete data points I know on top of my head a) come without a definitve source (I try to work on that lately) and b) can be interpreted as anecdotal evidence (an issue I see lately with people not from my field and I have to find a solution for sometime).

I've started using Anki for this. It's basically flash cards that are shown to you at increasing intervals in order to keep it fresh in your memory. It's made the HN front page a few times over the last year.


Some people just have an incredible memory. Enviable but not necessarily the brain's only killer app.

I am still thinking of building graph-like knowledge base for myself. Always end up with defining the interface and realising it may be a bit too general.

What amazes me even more is that John spends so much time here on HC chatting with us hoi polloi.

I’m delighted that such a wide variety of people find this community thoroughly enjoyable.

Me too, but the amount of time John spends here is truly incredibly.

I have been watching his rise up the HC karma list and he is now in 11th. Everyone else around him on the list joined in 2007 while John joined in September 2014. He is a rocket roaring past the crowd :)

Definitely off-topic, sorry. Incredulous means

(of a person or their manner) unwilling or unable to believe something.

Think you meant incredible/unbelievable etc.

> Bitcoin mines

Did not expect to see them in a conversation about electricity infrastructure and aluminium smelters. Interesting times we live in.

Bitcoin mines are measured in MW (megawatt) these days, it's incredibly depressing to realise we are wasting our resources on finding useless numbers. I hope the cryptocurrency craze dies quickly.

If you're interested in the modern risks of coronal mass injections, there's a report called "Solar Storm Risk to The North American Electrical Grid" [0] (2008) that summarizes the topic well. From page 4: "The total U.S. population at risk of extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of 16 days to 1-2 years."

[0] http://www.lloyds.com/~/media/lloyds/reports/emerging%20risk...

We should hurry up with developing power over fiber, now that the new hollow core fibers have been developed that have essentially no transmission losses. Is one of the few power transmission technologies that should be entirely unaffected by solar storms.

High power on a fiber has a problem called "fiber fuse" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiber_fuse).

I followed the link on this article to the article on a more recent solar storm (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_2012) where I found a report from Lloyd's which mentions that there are workarounds (like "neutral-current-blocking capacitors"), so it might be possible to make even large power transmission systems resistant against solar storms.

>High power on a fiber has a problem called "fiber fuse"

That is much less of an issue in the new hollow fibers, as their losses are significantly lower than glass ones.

Pouring gigawatts of laser light through fiber sounds pretty hard, especially if you want to have electricity for the end consumer, not light.

If sticking to a single frequency, the main loss is in producing the light in the first place as the new fibers can take a lot of power and conversion from light back to electricity can get above 90%, but laser efficiency is still pretty crap.

If laser efficiency were good enough for this we would have laser fusion.

I didn't realise that the laser's inherent inefficiency was the main loss in laser fusion, though it would make sense.

Laser fusion is not over-unity because lasers are horribly inefficient. If lasers were significantly better we could generate fusion power by repeatedly laser-imploding pellets of D-T fuel. We can already generate fusion this way but it takes more power to run the lasers than you get from the fusion (after conversion losses).

That's interesting. So effectively, laser fusion shifts the problem domain into making a better laser, rather than all the tedious mucking about with plasma confinement.

Will be interesting to see which problem is more tractable in the long run. Efficient lasers presumably have many more commercial applications than good plasma confinement does, though I could be very wrong about that. Given that the universe appears to have a sense of humour, efficient lasers will probably require progress in good plasma confinement.

Yes, though there are some other problems too. Laser fusion basically gives you a series of small thermonuclear blasts. There are ways of confining these (like doing them underwater) and extracting heat/power, but a real power plant would probably take some engineering and might have to be rather large.

You could think of such a power plant as something like a thermonuclear internal combustion engine with laser spark plugs. Actually I wonder if giant pistons similar to the huge diesels built by Wartsila and others for container ships could work. Put some water in there with the fuel pellet and the water would be flash vaporized by the fusion yield. You'd be talking about a pretty massive engine bore, probably much larger than those monster diesels. Might be worth doing for sheer awesomeness. :)

I don't know the numbers but my guess is that lasers would have to be dramatically more efficient than they are today for this to be a practical and economical way of generating power.

>Actually I wonder if giant pistons similar to the huge diesels built by Wartsila and others for container ships could work.

You just reminded me of this mental steampunk fusion design I read about a while back - https://www.technologyreview.com/s/414559/a-new-approach-to-...

You can buy power over fiber systems, but they are not cheap!

Last I checked it was something like $100/watt and was 10-25% efficient (plug-plug). The system I worked on used “standard” fiber as the hollow core stuff still had too many drawbacks.

I have been wondering about doing power over fiber for sensors, where they don't need much power, but do need an interference free supply. It seems like a good use case as you could presumably put a sensor at the end of a single fiber, then send power up and get data back down.


> A general problem of hollow-core fibers is that their propagation losses are substantially higher than for solid-core fibers – in particular when single-mode guidance is required.

That's interesting, I remember reading last year about advances in hollow fibers that said they were better than glass for a single frequency.

I followed the reference and it leads to a paper from 2013;

>Hollow-core fibers (HCFs) are a revolution in light guidance with enormous potential. They promise lower loss than any other waveguide, but have not yet achieved this potential because of a tradeoff between loss and single-moded operation.


I haven't yet found the reference to the fiber I was reading about, though I do know it was still in the lab.

edit - it might be this stuff - http://optics.org/news/6/6/20

edit2 - https://www.novuslight.com/hollow-core-fiber-breakthrough_N8...

> Some telegraph operators could continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.

What a fascinating read.

It really makes you happy that this type of solar/planetary stuff affecting the earth only happens on such a long timescale where it doesn't commonly affect our day-to-day lives as much as earthborn issues such as severe storms or other extreme meteorological events. But it's also a shame in some ways:

> Myself and two mates looking out of the tent saw a great reflection in the southern heavens at about 7 o'clock p.m., and in about half an hour, a scene of almost unspeakable beauty presented itself, lights of every imaginable color were issuing from the southern heavens, one color fading away only to give place to another if possible more beautiful than the last, the streams mounting to the zenith

It's stochastic. Could happen tomorrow.

We got lucky in 2012. [1]

[1] https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/2...

> On July 23, 2012 a "Carrington-class" solar superstorm (solar flare, coronal mass ejection, solar EMP) was observed; its trajectory missed Earth in orbit. Information about these observations was first shared publicly by NASA on April 28, 2014

Why would NASA not share this with the public?

Oh NASA did share the event at the time:


They just didn't realize the magnitude.

David Roodman wrote an excellent 4-part analysis of risks from geomagnetic storms for the givewell blog: https://blog.givewell.org/tag/geomagnetic-storms/

This is an amazing read. "When magnetic cores saturate and the field strays outside the core (see my first post), wires and insulation can overheat and in effect burn. Hot spots manifest not as a flames (one hopes) but as chemical decomposition that forces gaseous byproducts into the oil, which can be monitored. In all of these eight transformers, degradation began right after storm activity and proceeded slowly, so that failure arrived in weeks or months rather than minutes."

Ars Technica had a longer article on this: https://arstechnica.com/science/2012/05/1859s-great-auroral-...

What satellite companies and energy providers should I be prepared to short in the event we are expecting another solar storm of this magnitude?

are there any data centers that are shielded from this sort of event?

All of them. This wouldn't affect low power equipment, only transmission over long distances. As others have noted, it's not an EMP.

If it happened again today, the event itself wouldn't be the thing you'd tell your grandchildren about. It would be the terrifying years afterwards as the world tried to put itself back together.

Hmm, we always have a science fiction meme that says that says any civilisation that gets to our level of technology will wipe itself out with nuclear weapons or something. This seems like a more real risk, the technology gets sufficiently advanced that it cannot withstand any external shock. 1859 = fine, 2018 it would destroy capitalism and commerce. The same dark abyss we were staring down at the time of the GFC.

> more real risk

What's not real about the threat of nuclear bombs?

Would it 'destroy' capitalism and commerce, or just set it back some number of years?

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