Can Solar Events Disrupt Your Water Supply?

In 1859 a solar storm, known as the Carrington Event, created powerful flares and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on Earth. Such was the intensity and brilliance of the associated white light flares, people in the northeastern United States could read newsprint by the lights of the aurora.

An event of this magnitude, when, not if, it occurs today, will cause catastrophic problems in the current technology-dependent world.

Does the above sound like a doomsday prediction from the guy with a ‘the world is ending’ placard in the comic strips? Not quite. Although the probability of such an event recurring is low, it cannot be ruled out.

J.J Love, a geophysicist at USGS, a US government research agency made the following telling statement about the uncertainty of such an event: “the 10-yr recurrence probability for a Carrington event is somewhere between vanishingly unlikely and surprisingly likely.”

Solar storms – the eruptions of mass and energy from the sun – can disrupt power grids, electricity flows, cause radio blackouts and disrupt satellite communications. Although, the impact differs depending on the severity of the solar event –solar flares typically last for 1 to 2 hours, and solar proton events (SPEs) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can last for days – such events can potentially adversely impact water supply and management, sewage management given that these sectors are dependent on electricity.

There have been many examples of disruptions caused by solar events.

In 1989 a solar storm induced a geoelectric field that collapsed the Hydro-Québec electric power grid in Canada; about 9 million people lost power. Also in 1989, the Salem Pressurized Water Nuclear Reactor in New Jersey was affected when an induced current in the electrical transmission line damaged a step-up transformer. During the same event, large transformers were damaged in the UK, and about 200 significant anomalies occurred in electricity grids across North America, with power interruptions as far south as California.

In 2003, a massive solar storm caused a system failure in the Swedish electrical grid by shutting down transformers. The same event caused damage to the grid in North America, which included a capacitor trip and a transformer overheating. This event resulted in a shutdown of water and sewage pumps in New York City and millions of gallons of sewage spewed out in New York city. In South Africa, the same event led to a break-down in 12 transformers.

Perhaps the most disturbing impact of a long power outage is the failure of supply of cooling water for nuclear reactors. Depending upon the magnitude of the impact of an SPE on power grids, hundreds of nuclear power reactors could melt down as their cooling water is depleted. Explosions and breaches of containment vessels would then spread radioactive material into the surrounding areas. The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters are noteworthy examples of what could happen.

Society has become used to short-term power outages of a few days. But much longer outages, as a consequence of a solar storm, are not accounted for in the planning process in most countries. While policy planners have focused on the physics of solar storms and impacts on electricity grids, there is almost no research on the links between electrical failure from solar storms and water supply disturbance.

Increased vulnerability to disruptions?

Recent trends such as cross-border power grid integration may have increased the vulnerability of the power supply systems. NORDPOOL, for example, connects the Nordic Countries to The Baltic States, the UK, and Germany in a region prone to extreme SPEs.

Other cross-border grid networks have been established with varying degrees of interconnection, and include the Central American Power market (SIEPAC), the North American power grid, the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS), the Southern African Power Pool (involving 12 nations), and the West African Power Pool.

In Southeast Asia, an ambitious plan is underway to link the power grids of all ASEAN countries. Eleven cross-border links already exist, ten more are in progress, and a further seventeen are planned. While such interconnections help save costs (estimated cost saving from interconnection is the US $1873 million in 2009 present value), they also increase the possibility of a system-wide failure.

There hasn’t been enough attention given to disaster planning to mitigate such scenarios. There needs to be added research done on cascading failures of key facilities and services that rely on electricity, including water resources and sewerage systems; simulations of both national and cross-border networks with sufficient spatial specificity and assessments of social vulnerability for operational purposes; cross-border agreements about how to communicate warnings of impending SPEs and when and how to act; cross-border agreements about the allocation of new or standby transformers in the event of a major loss of this equipment; and insurance against losses, business discontinuity, and solutions found for the limitations imposed by territorial limitations of insurance.

There is a need for a major overhaul of risk assessment and management. Again, national and cross-border agreements will be necessary to ensure maximum protection of hospitals, water distribution and treatment, nuclear power plants, and emergency services. If possible, electricity supply to these critical facilities should not rely on power from neighbouring countries.

Robert Wasson is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.  


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