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The Gazette from Montreal, Quebec, Canada • 2

The Gazettei
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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A2 THE GAZETTE TUESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2012 rmn 9 mere a mut srona a-ore 1 ENVIRONMENT Scientists warn of potentially crippling effects if Earth gets hit by the big one a. i I Vety REUTERSNOAA NASA and NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) solar X-ray image shows the Sun last week. The Sun is nearing a peak in its 10-year activity cycle, raising fears of a once-in-100 years solar storm that could severely affect the Earth. of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration." A separate NASA-backed report in 2007 estimated a Carrington-scale solar storm would cost the satellite operators a minimum of $30 billion. Andrew Richards said National Grid started commissioning research on the threat around 1996 and the company now monitors solar activity on a daily basis.

"We want to be prepared if something did happen," he said. "There is a human tendency that if it hasn't happened for a long time, to forget all about it." That rarity makes the risk hard to quantify. "It's very hard to say how bad it could possibly be," he says. "The Sun could explode and we would all die, but modelling based on the most extreme events that we know of says we do not believe a catastrophic return to the stone age is in the cards." Based on that modelling, Richards says the worst-case scenario is that the voltage fluctuations get bad enough to cause a local or national blackout. To guard against this, National Grid has opted for a more resilient transformer design since 1997 and has increased the number of spares it keeps.

Richards said the record for replacing one of them is four weeks. "Imagine demolishing a family house, re-laying the foundations and then closing roads and bringing in a ready-made one on the back of a (truck). You can't do it overnight." Aside from Earth-based observation of the Sun, one of the few detectors monitoring the "solar wind" is NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer, which sits like a lonely sentinel about 2.5 million kilometres away in an orbit that keeps it directly between the Earth and the Sun. Its detectors continually monitor the direction and speed of the solar wind, feeding data back to the Space Weather Prediction Centre in Boulder, to give 15 to 45 minutes warning of any solar onslaught. The insurance industry, which would take a hit, if satellites started dropping out of the sky, admits that the risk is a hard one to price.

universal problem and gives the advantage to the guys who make a virtue of their ability to deal with space weather." Radio communications with jetliners can also be knocked out as the solar storm messes with the ionosphere, the region of the Earth's upper atmosphere through which long-range radio waves travel. When there is a threat, airlines reroute planes to lower latitudes where they are less exposed. It's not quite routine but it isn't that rare either, and it adds to the fuel bill. It's a threat that is "low frequency, high severity" in insurance industry jargon, which governments have only recently started taking seriously "Politically, it started to get some purchase about three years ago," says Andrew Richards, a severe risk analyst at National Grid, which runs the U.K. electricity network.

"We know they are real effects but we are nowhere near there, in terms of our understanding." Teams of scientists in North America and Europe spend their days and nights monitoring the Sun and issuing warnings to governments, power companies, satellite operators and airlines. In 2003, a magnetic storm triggered malfunctions in 47 satellites and led to the complete loss of one worth $640 million, according to the British Antarctic Survey, which this year launched an EU-funded space weather forecasting service for the satellite industry Before that, a 1989 storm was blamed for taking out the entire power network in Quebec within 90 seconds, leaving millions of people without electricity for nine hours. But the only really big storms that provide any meaningful reference point for how bad it could be happened long before the development of nationwide power grids, the Internet and mass air travel. The big one is known as the Carrington event in 1859, when British astronomer Richard Carrington observed and recorded a very CHRIS WICKHAM REUTERS London The delicate threads that hold modern life together are dramatically cut by an unexpected threat from outer space, with disastrous effects. It's the stuff of science fiction usually associated with tales of rogue asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

But over the next two years, as the Sun reaches a peak in its 10-year activity cycle, scientists say there is a heightened risk that a solar storm could knock out the power grids, satellites and communications on which we all rely. "Governments are taking it very seriously," says Mike Hapgood, a space weather specialist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K. "These things may be very rare but when they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic." Hapgood said there is a roughly 12 per cent chance of a major solar storm every decade, making them a one-in-100-year event. The last major one was over 150 years ago. The threat comes from the magnetically charged plasma which the Sun belches out.

Like vast bubbles bursting off the Sun's surface, they send millions of tonnes of gas racing through space that can engulf the Earth with as little as one to three days warning. The geomagnetic storms they stoke can induce strong currents in national power grids that melt the expensive transformers that form the cornerstones of the system. Scientists say satellites can also be damaged or destroyed, as charged particles rip through them at hundreds of kilometres per second. It's an issue the satellite industry is not keen to talk openly about. "A few will still publicly deny that there is a problem," said Hapgood, blaming the fear that being first to admit the problem could put a company at a commercial disadvantage.

"We have a way to go before we reach the point where the market accepts that this is a large solar eruption that reportedly took just 17 hours to show up in the Earth's atmosphere. The aurora bor-ealis or Northern Lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean. Local news reports carried accounts of people in the northeast United States being able to read a newspaper in the middle of the night by the light of the aurora, and miners in the Rocky Mountains waking up and preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. The accounts are entertaining, but with about a thousand active satellites now in orbit around the Earth, including the International Space Station, the damage from solar storms could present private operators like SES Global and governments with a bill in the billions of dollars. It is hard to quantify how serious and pervasive a sudden and complete loss of electrical power could be for a modern economy, but this is precisely what a 2008 report from the U.S.

National Academy of Sciences tried to do. The result was alarming. REUTERSNASA An X-class flare from the Sun can travel toward Earth at 1,300 km a second. Because satellites and electrical grids are affected by solar flares, fears about their effects are growing. The effects of an extended outage lasting more than a few "hours would include, it said, "disruption of the transportation, communication, banking and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure, and the loss 201 2 Porsche Cars Canada, Ltd Porsche recommends seatbelt usage and observance of all traffic laws all times.

2. nifflnn- 11 3 HAVE YOUR SAY ON THE BIG ISSUE What do you think the main issue of the Quebec election campaign should be? Rooting out corruption? Improved health and social services? The economy? Take part in our online election poll. quebecvotes HOW TO REACH US GENERAL INQUIRIES 514-987-2222 HOME DELIVERY, INCLUDING SUBSCRIPTION BILLING From the Montreal area: 514-987-2400 From elsewhere: 1-800-361-8478 Email: By mail: 1010 Ste. Catherine St. Suite 200, Montreal, QC, H3B 5L1 ADVERTISING Classified advertising: (Cars, For Sale, Jobs, Obituaries, Real Estate, Services) 514-987-7653 (SOLD) montrealgazette.complaceanad Displaydigital advertising: 514-987-2350 Advertising billing: 514-987-2250 NEWSROOM Reader information: 514-987-2463 Copyright permission: Executive Editor: Raymond Brassard 514-987-2508 Newsroom fax: 514-987-2399 Letters to the editor: "PLAY" IS THE NEW WAY TO HELP YOU PLAY IN THE CITY Play is The Gazette's new newsletter designed to help you decide your weekend entertainment plans.

Every Thursday, we'll bring you the best of what to do and who to see in Montreal. Sign up to receive it every week at montrealgazette.complay Maintenance included. An all-wheel drive 911 is the perfect all-season driving solution. The drive is even sweeter 3-year or 45,000 km Porsche Scheduled Maintenance Program (PSMP) for all 911 (997 models). Contact Porsche Prestige today.

Porsche Prestige, we go out of our way for you. FOR THE RECORD Due to a reporting error, a column in Saturday's paper transposed actresses' roles in the musical Wicked, playing at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts. Jeanna de Waal plays the part of Clinda, and Christine Dwyer portrays Elphaba. Due to a reporting error, an item in the Driving Calendar in Monday's paper had an incorrect date and contact information. The VAQ Beaconsfield Expo will be held Aug.

19 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Centennial Park in Beaconsfield. For more information please go to The Gazette regrets the errors. LOTTERIES For last night's lottery numbers, see the Loto-Quebec ad on Page All Privacy.

The Gazette is published daily by Postmedia Network Inc. Postmedia Network collects and uses your personal information primarily for the purpose of providing you with the products and services you have requested from us. The company may also contact you from time to time about your account or to conduct market research and surveys in an ettort to continually improve our product and service ouennes. To enable us to more emcientlv provide the products and ser Porsche Prestige (514) 356-7777 3535 Cote de Liesse Montreal, QC H4N 2N5 1-866-499-8911 vices you have requested from us. Postmedia Network may share your personal information with selected third parties who are acting on our behalf as our agents.

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All other rights are reserved and commercial use is pronioitea. io mane any useoi mis material you must nrst ooiain ine permission 01 tne owner ot tnecopyngnt. ror runner information, email library Publications Mail Registration number is 0619. U.S.A.

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