Solar flares are a potential threat to critical infrastructure, according to NASA scientists. who say the sun's vast magnetic field is about to flip, an event that creates an elevated risk of solar activity and "space weather." A concern for data center providers is the potential for solar storms, which can wreak havoc on infrastructure.
The sun changes polarity approximately every 11 years. The coming reversal marks the midpoint of solar cycle 24.The sun’s north pole has already changed, while the south is racing to catch up. This means we're in a more active phase of the solar cycle.
While the chances of a direct hit from a solar flare are small, it's something data center managers should be preparing for, according to Eric Gallant, consultant energy management services for Schneider Electric.
"Have an operational posture that you can shift to in the event of a solar storm," said Gallant. "Have a plan for what you're going to do with personnel and communications."
Individual Events Merit Attention
The upcoming solar maximum may see a record low in the overall activity, but individual events could be very powerful. The worst-case scenario is a storm of historic proportions, similar to the "Carrington event," a major 19th century solar weather event on a scale that could wreak havoc with modern infrastructure.
The biggest fear is what might happen to the electrical grid during these events. Power surges caused by solar particles could blow out giant transformers. The eastern half of the U.S. is particularly vulnerable, because power infrastructure is highly interconnected, potentially leading to cascading failures.
The poles of the sun are tracked just like the poles of the earth, and this heralds in change. This will be the fourth grand reversal since Magnetograms at Wilcox Solar Observatory began tracking the sun’s polar magnetism in 1976.
The sun's magnetic influence (also known as the "heliosphere") extends billions of kilometers beyond Pluto. The current “sheet,” the sun’s rotating magnetic field, induces an electrical current. The current itself is small, only 1 billionth of an amp per square meter, but there’s a ton of it. The amperage flows through a region 10,000 kilometers thick and billions of kilometers wide. The entire heliosphere is organized around this enormous sheet. During these field reversals, that sheet becomes very wavy. This sheet is crazy.
As earth orbits, it dips in and out of the sheet. The transitions in and out can cause stormy space weather. It also affects cosmic rays, which are primarily danger to astronauts and space probes, but some researchers say might affect the cloud concentration and climate of Earth.
The real threat is solar flares and coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. A CME is a slower moving cloud of charged particles that can take several days to reach Earth's atmosphere. When a CME hits, the solar particles can interact with Earth's magnetic field to produce powerful electromagnetic fluctuations.
The Carrington Event
If a storm similar to the Carrington event were to occur today, it would be mayhem. The Carrington event occurred in 1859, during the largest solar storm on record. The solar maximum was about the same size as the one we’re entering, according to NASA. The northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile. People in the northeastern US could read newspaper print from the light of the Aurora. Telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment.
"The EPA and congress looked into what would happen if a solar flare of that magnitude would strike us now," said Gallant. "We rely on those systems a lot more. They were talking about blackouts that last months, trillions of dollars lost, and 10s of thousands of lives lost. The chances are not huge, but they are as high as they’re going to be."
The technology of the time of the Carrington event was limited. Imagine the world today, and if something of similar magnitude occurred, and it could be disastrous. It’s named after Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare and was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.
"The Carrington event didn’t occur during a solar maximum," Gallant notes. "While the current peak activity will last around two years, this is something people should worry about like hurricane season."
For data center providers, Gallant urges taking precautions to prevent damage resulting from small or mid-sized solar flares. This includes installing transient voltage surge suppression (TVSS), uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), and on-site emergency standby generators.
"In terms of what can we do about it, a lot of the precautionary measures are very similar to other natural disaster types of phenomena," said Gallant. "You want a secure backup power source. A Generator is the first thing; the type of damage these solar flares do is cause major failures in the electrical distribution system. With the generator, you should have plenty of fuel available.
The second thing is an electrical bridge technology. Something to get you to the generator, something like a UPS system.
Thirdly, surges and spikes on the electrical transmission lines TVSS gear will prevent those surges and spikes on the utility line from damaging equipment.
Gallant also urges that we keep an eye on the weather forcast - the space weather forecast. "There’s weather forecasting systems for space weather. They’ve gotten really good at predicting when these solar flares are going spike. I’m recommending data center operators stay aware of weather," said Gallant.
The fifth point of the plan Gallant suggests is to examine communication protocols. "The effect of solar flares are not only on land based technology, but satellite systems as well," said Gallant. Satellites are susceptible to damage. So if your data center relies on satellite based communication, you need to plan on backup. The disaster recovery plan may be disrupted by the same activity. We’re advising data center operators to look at communication protocols."
Observatory spacecraft are hoping to gain a better understanding of how the sun behaves as the next maximum begins generating bigger storms. This will lead to better predictions, more accurate forecasts, and the capability to do something about it. The most damaging emissions from big storms travel slow enough to be detected already, giving about 20 hours notice before it hits earth. This gives enough time to purposely take transformers offline before the strike, producing local, temporary blackouts, which is better than the potential alternative.
While the chances are small, solar flares are one thing data centers need to be prepared for in the unlikely event of a disaster. Most disasters are unlikely events.