Ideology , security, solitude: there are many reasons why people move off-grid. Hitherto “cosmic rays” has not been one of them.
Yet fear of what has been called by NASA ‘a solar Katrina’ is precisely what prompted Larry Rodriguez, 54, and his wife Sandie to flee Florida for a former chicken coop in Pennsboro, West Virginia.
“The bad weather we are having in the world is because of the solar storms now happening because the sun is ramping up,” says Rodriguez. “We are the kind of people that want to be ready for anything and I’m hoping that it isn’t true but all of the signs are in place.”
Grid vulnerable to solar storms
It would be easy to dismiss his concerns as apocalyptic, But the ‘signs’ he refers to are detailed in a series of increasingly urgent statements by NASA, which reveal a very real possibility over the next three years of a solar storm that could knock out the entire power grid, crippling modern society for weeks or even months.
“We are not afraid of the solar storm, we are afraid of what people are going to do once they find out that they are going to be without power for months or years,” says Rodriguez.
According to NASA we are approaching a “solar maximum” – a period when storms on the surface of the sun are more likely to eject enormous amounts of electromagnetic energy and plasma. “When a coronal mass ejection (a billion-ton solar storm cloud) hits Earth’s magnetic field, the impact causes the field to shake and quiver. These magnetic vibrations induce currents almost everywhere, from Earth’s upper atmosphere to the ground beneath our feet. Powerful GICs can overload circuits, trip breakers, and in extreme cases melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers, “ says NASA on its web site.
Smart power grids, dumb power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications and pretty much anything electrical can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. “A century-class solar storm, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina” warned the National Academy of Sciences in 2008.
Grid transmits solar storms
It turns out that the grid isn’t merely a passive victim of these solar storms, it can actually amplify their effects. “Since the beginning of the Space Age the total length of high-voltage power lines crisscrossing North America has increased nearly 10 fold. This has turned power grids into giant antennas for geomagnetically induced currents,” it says.
Such events arent just theoretical possibilities, they happen regularly. In Quebec for instance on March 13, 1989, a geomagnetic storm knocked out power across the entire province for more than nine hours. The storm damaged transformers in New Jersey, and Great Britain, and caused more than 200 power anomalies across the. A similar series of storms in October 2003 triggered a regional blackout in southern Sweden and may have damaged transformers in South Africa.
Thats why on May 1 last year Larry and his wife moved into an 80 year old cabin measuring just 13’ by 23’ set on a slice of west Virginian mountainside. “It should have been torn down but for the sake of time we decided to work our butts off and rebuild it with an attached greenhouse and half earthen subterranean kitchen with wood fired oven and a root cellar,” he says.
Even off grid power affected
The shack is not connected to the grid, but the mere fact that it has electricity (from solar panels) means that it too will be subject to the effects of solar storms. So Rodriguez says he uses batteries and inverters with everything grounded back to battery ground. “I have been a boater most of my life and that is how it is done on boats. The only earth ground that we are using is for lightening to guard the wind turbine.
He has even considered the effects on water supply. “I don’t think that the solar storms will have any effect on the water in holding tanks but as far as piping we are using all poly pipe and PVC as copper has to be grounded to prevent corrosion from electrolysis.”
And if things get really rough the Rodriguez family always has the option of retreating to a 450 foot long disused railway tunnel on their land that will protect them against everything except a direct hit by an asteroid.
NASA’s solar shield
The good news for Larry Rodriguez is that if the solar Katrina does occur, at least he’ll have between one and four days notice. NASA has put in place a defence called ‘solar shield’ consisting of satellites that can spot solar storms destined for earth. Although it identifies them days in advance, the crucial moment comes about 30 minutes before impact when the storm sweeps past ACE, a spacecraft stationed roughly a million miles from earth.
The craft measures the storm’s speed, density, and magnetic field and transmits the data to Earth where scientists say they can work out where exactly damage will be greatest, allowing them to warn public utilities.
So do think more of us should be joing Larry Rodriguez? “It is true that we are sitting in the Sun’s atmosphere, the heliosphere, so it can create strong currents on earth, “ says Doctor Lucie Green of the UK’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory. “There will be more storms but it’s very hard to put even rough odds on the probability of them being serious.” However she concedes that “the worst case scenario is pretty bad.”
Yes, it seems that ‘fear of cosmic rays, comic though it may sound, has become another legitimate reason to go off grid. ENDS
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