A close-up from 2002 of an erupting solar prominence with Earth inset at the approximate scale of the image. Image credit: ESA & NASA/SOHO

Starting today, October 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center will begin forecasting the effects of solar storms on specific regions of the Earth—areas as small as 350 square miles. The Space Weather Modeling Framework, as it is called, gives NOAA a heads-up of about 45 minutes that a solar storm will affect some specific place on Earth. (For comparison, tornado warnings have windows of up to 15 minutes.) NOAA can then issue calls for regions affected to take evasive actions in order to protect the power grid and other infrastructure from lasting damage.

Such forecasts were long impossible to make, and the new capability is the result of decades of research, modeling, and refinement by scientists at the University of Michigan and Rice University.

WHAT ARE SOLAR STORMS?

Solar storms are the result of powerful eruptions of charged particles and magnetic fields from the Sun. When they strike, they can cause serious problems with the power grid. This happened most recently in 1989, when a solar storm tripped circuit breakers at Hydro-Québec, plunging the city into darkness for nine hours. (The storm also disrupted weather and communications satellites, and sensors on the space shuttle Discovery, which was in orbit at the time.) Regional forecasts of areas that might be affected by such storms has been elusive because of the sheer difficulty of constructing a working model.

The Space Weather Modeling Framework, then, is a quantum leap in predicting the effects and targets of geomagnetic storms. It combines three disparate models: one that looks at "ring currents" of hot particles that encircle Earth; one that concerns the ionosphere (a vast region of the upper atmosphere that leads to the magnetosphere); and one concerning "magnetohydrodynamics," which, according to University of Michigan press statement, "simulates effects on the Earth from electric and magnetic fields." It took 25 years to develop and marry the three models.

There is a 12 percent chance that the Earth will be hit by a solar storm in the next decade. What might that mean? Look at what happened in Québec, but if you want to experience some real terror, look also at the Carrington Event of 1859.

All things considered, that was a pretty good time to sustain such a catastrophic solar storm. Electric utilities were still decades away. (Paris, the "city of lights," wouldn't get its first outdoor electrical light for another 19 years, and Thomas Edison wouldn't open his first power utility until 1882—to a whopping 85 homes.) So when the solar storm hit, the "grid" consisted entirely of telegraph lines. The impact varied. On the mild end of the spectrum, telegraph operators lost power and their tap-tap-taptaptap-taps transmitted nothing at all. On the scary end, the massive infusion of bad current into the telegraph lines and set paper on fire in telegraph offices.

Imagine, then, the mass destruction that would result from an event today of the same magnitude. Power lines, cable lines, telephone lines—all would risk such surges of solar strength, possibly leaving major metropolitan areas without electricity, water, or any way of communication. The Earth narrowly avoided just such a catastrophic solar superstorm in 2012.

PREVIOUSLY VAGUE WARNINGS GET SPECIFIC—AND ACTIONABLE

Before the creation of the Space Weather Modeling Framework, forecasters might see a solar flare coming and tell utility companies, This looks big and scary, so be prepared. But nobody really knew how big the storm might be or which areas might be affected. Such vagaries gave utilities few options. Daniel Welling, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, tells mental_floss that Hydro-Québec had no warning that a solar storm would affect the power grid. "It took only 90 seconds from the point that they noticed a problem to the point where eastern Canada was without power. With our tool," Welling says, "utility companies can see the magnitude of the event before it hits and what regions are likely to be most affected. They can prepare and take action to prevent another Hydro-Québec incident—or worse."

Welling is one of the new model's developers. "I've talked to representatives from the power industry," he says, "and they repeatedly tell us that this information will be both useful and actionable." For very extreme space weather storms, representatives from the power industry must make a decision to either disable components of the power grid or keep the system up and risk serious damage.

HOW UTILITIES WILL RESPOND TO SCARY FORECASTS

"We're thrilled" about the new forecasting feature, Howard Singer, chief scientist of the Space Weather Prediction Center, tells mental_floss. "In the past we've been able to provide a global index of activity: How likely the geomagnetic field is to be disturbed over the next day or so—hours to days. This [new modeling framework] introduces the beginnings of being able to say it might be more disturbed, say, in Europe or the United States, or reaching down from Canada into the northern U.S. region. It's beginning to give us some regional capability where these disturbances might be most important in affecting technologies."

It works like this. The Space Weather Prediction Center uses the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit international regulatory authority, to disseminate information to grid operators in the United States and Canada. NOAA will call them if something is imminent, and they will get the word out. In addition, the Space Weather Prediction Center has a number of ways of conveying information to the public, government, and industry, including a website, a subscription service, and phone calls to important customers. "One organization we are involved with is the Department of Homeland Security, and in particular, the Federal Emergency Management Agency," says Singer.

Words and warnings, of course, must be followed by actions. NERC has an operating procedure that they use for the information they receive. They take actions on long-term things—if an event is likely in couple of days, grid operators might put off maintenance on something that they're doing somewhere. There are actions they take even one hour or so in advance. They monitor transformer temperatures, and they closely monitor devices more susceptible to solar events. They can shed loads so that the grid in question is not running near capacity. They can remove lines from services that interconnect between various grid operators.

"On one hand," says Welling, "you are guaranteeing a short-term power outage to a region. On the other hand, you are preventing massive losses and long-term power outages. Making these types of decisions requires accurate and regional knowledge of space weather hazards. Our model results are a big first step toward this."