Sunny outlook for Northern Minnesota … too sunny

rtist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. Credit: NASA Space weather starts at the sun. It begins with an eruption such as a huge burst of light and radiation called a solar flare or a gigantic cloud of solar material called a coronal mass ejection (CME). But the effects of those eruptions happen at Earth, or at least near-Earth space. Scientists monitor several kinds of space "weather" events -- geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts – all caused by these immense explosions on the sun. To read more go to: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/storms-on-sun.html

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. Space weather starts at the sun. It begins with an eruption such as a huge burst of light and radiation called a solar flare or a gigantic cloud of solar material called a coronal mass ejection (CME). But the effects of those eruptions happen at Earth, or at least near-Earth space. Scientists monitor several kinds of space “weather” events — geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts – all caused by these immense explosions on the sun. Read more. (NASA)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Who doesn’t love the sun? The sun lights the world, warms the atmosphere, and keeps Earth from hurtling into the cold vacuum of space. It’s neither the biggest star in the universe, nor the most interesting. The sun is just a working class star that keeps the gas burning 24/7.

Sure, the sun can cause cancer. If you stare at it long enough your eyes scorch like kabobs forgotten on the grill. The sun triggers heat stroke and snow blindness. So the sun isn’t perfect, but sustaining life on Earth helps us forgive its foibles. Just think of the sun as like your mother that way.

Of course, there is the small matter of sun storms. Nuclear activity on the surface of the sun hurls spires of plasma out into our solar system. These occasionally knock out satellites and disrupt communication on Earth.

But that’s not all.

Every so often an astronomy teacher or some TV science host warns us that the sun will one day unleash even greater storms. This is often punctuated by some kid in the back slurping back drool as he snaps awake. Point is, it’s one of those “I get it; I just don’t care” kind of facts.

What if I told you that those storms are coming. That the question was not if, but when. And what if I told you that the combination of Northern Minnesota’s geographic location and geological composition makes that an even more harrowing reality. In fact, one new map shows that such a solar storm could disable our power grid and disable our digital devices.

The map that shows this impact, developed by geophysicist Jeffrey Love and other authors, was published in Geophysical Review Letters last month. Elizabeth Deatrick reported on Love’s survey in a Sept. 13 article in the journal “Science.” It doesn’t predict a specific storm, so much as it anticipates the effect of a solar storm on different parts of the United States. The elevation and location of Northern Minnesota would make it an anvil to any solar storm’s hammer, according to Love.

“A new study shows that the upper Midwest can have its own special sort of grid-destroying storm—space weather,” writes Deatrick. “The study finds that this region is at greatest risk of damage from storms of charged particles from the sun, which crash into Earth and send electrical currents surging along power lines, melting transformers and triggering blackouts. According to the study, those surges could be up to 100 times more powerful in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin than in other parts of the United States.”

A significant solar storm fried telegraph cables across the country in 1859, even burning some telegraph operators. That was long before the power and communication infrastructure we have today existed. Love and others used that storm as a basis to evaluate the risks today.

It’s easy to imagine worst-case scenarios. Solar storms wouldn’t mean the end of electricity, but we are talking about billions of dollars in damage to the existing grid. In the event of a serious solar storm it might take years to reestablish the same infrastructure. Love’s map is designed to help power companies prepare for this possibility.
A cursory review of my conversations on social media this past year reveal a great deal of focus on the shallow issues of the upcoming election, the next sporting event or the newest gadget. What if we’re preparing for a world that simply won’t resemble the one we see now?

It’s not all bad. Northern Minnesota boasts natural resources, especially fresh water, and a temperate climate that will endure global change.

Ample water. Seasonable weather. Limited access to electricity. For some, that might sound like heaven on earth. For the rest, you may find yourself a digital refugee one day, roaming the land in search of wi-fi and a power outlet.

Don’t look at me like that. Look at the sun. Just not too long.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 

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