How Hennepin Co. is helping the country prepare for and track solar storms

There are earthly threats and there are space threats and while we might not be able to stop those dangers far out of our reach, we can do a better job planning for them.

That’s what is happening in Hennepin County.

While few spend time thinking about space hazards, plenty of people are because some of those threats have the power to knock off our power grid and cost trillions of dollars in damage.

Now, there is more work being done to forecast solar storms and where they might hit.

Eric Waage, the director of Hennepin County Emergency Management, knows a thing or two about emergencies, but he is learning more about emergencies out of this world.

“The sun, a huge generator of energy, will occasionally burp out these big blobs of energy known as coronal mass ejections and they come roaring into outer space and if little teeny earth happens it be in that pathway, we’ll get wacked with a big chunk of this energy,” Waage said.

He has his eye on these solar storms and with our electrical systems so intertwined, a solar storm could wreak havoc on our power grids.

“When they do happen, our modern technology gets hit,” he said. “This is something people who run utilities and plan for disasters really need to have on their radar.”

Researchers are working to better predict the impact of those storms through the Space Hazard Monitor Network. It is measuring electric currents from solar energy in the ground at six sites around the country, including Hennepin County.

“We can use these measurements to plan and understand the vulnerabilities in the system in case a large storm would happen in the future,” said Jennifer Gannon, of Computational Physics, Inc.

While researchers have always monitored the sun and the potential for solar storms, this new way of looking at it could help us all in a worst-case scenario.

“Extreme storms are really, really rare, we need to plan for them and learn how to mitigate for them so that if something happens, we can protect the grid and everybody’s safe and the power stays on,” Gannon added.

The worst solar storm on record was in 1859, known as the Carrington event. It was powerful enough to start fires and shock telegraph operators.

Experts estimate it would’ve cost trillions of dollars of damage if it would have happened now.

The closest we’ve come to something like that in modern history was in 2012.

Luckily, the earth was out of the way when the massive blob of energy passed by. We missed it by just nine days.