NZ's (only) space-weather team to investigate power-grid solar-storm risk

A spectacular auroral display viewed from the Otago Peninsula in April 2015. Aurora can interfere with the Earth's ...
STEPHEN VOSS

A spectacular auroral display viewed from the Otago Peninsula in April 2015. Aurora can interfere with the Earth's magnetic field and knock out power and communications networks.

Scientists at the University of Otago are trying to forecast "space weather" to investigate how explosions from the Sun could affect New Zealand's power grid.

The Otago Space Physics project team study the nature of the near-Earth atmosphere, the magnetic field and the upper atmosphere, known as the magnetosphere.

Fraser Gunn Astrophotography/Facebook

Mackenzie Basin astrophotographer Fraser Gunn captured this stunning timelapse video of aurora in 2015.

Current projects include a ground-breaking piece of research, the first of its kind in New Zealand, to interrogate 12 years of data relating to solar wind and how this affects, for example, satellites, telecommunications and power supplies.

Some of the best known effects of "space weather" are aurora, known as the southern and northern lights.

Department of Physics head, Professor Craig Rodger, said the team was given unprecedented access to readings archived by New Zealand's power-grid provider Transpower.

A NASA image showing Mars, which unlike Earth lacks a global magnetic field to deflect the solar wind.
NASA

A NASA image showing Mars, which unlike Earth lacks a global magnetic field to deflect the solar wind.

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The space-weather research team had a broad remit.

A NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory image shows an active region of the Sun flaring up.

A NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory image shows an active region of the Sun flaring up.

"What we are trying to do is understand what happens in space around the Earth.

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"Disruptions of the magnetic field can influence our power grid. There's always material coming off the Sun, [and the] solar wind that goes past the Earth.

"Every now and then the Sun goes 'bang' and that energy crashes into the magnetic field."

The team was trying to understand what happened when the magnetic field around the Earth was disrupted and how that could affect satellites or the power grid, he said.

New Zealand's grid has not been badly hit by space weather. But in Canada, in 1989, a massive solar flare knocked out the power grid for the entire province of Quebec and many parts of North America.

Millions of people were plunged into darkness during winter.

"Roughly we're interested in this zone that's maybe 60,000 kilometres [in diameter] around the Earth," Rodger said.

"That's where the expensive satellites are. Some get upset due to these storms. Then there's the whole influence on ground-based technology like power grids."

Rodger said it was possible power grids could be reconfigured to avoid any disruption from solar wind effects but they needed to first interrogate electric grid data from Transpower alongside solar-wind event dates going back 12 years.

A study by NASA investigated a major solar storm, a one-in-100 year event, as part of a project called Solar Shield.

The risk to a geographically diverse and large continent such as North America is greater than a smaller, island nation such as New Zealand, where the risk is probably comparable to the United Kingdom

Rodger said studies in the UK had investigated the risk to the British grid but the Otago team project, funded by a grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, was a first for New Zealand.

The team hoped to be able to predict what might happen if a "super-solar flare" affected New Zealand.

"In the UK they said it would be bad. New Zealand? We don't know.

"Not only are we doing something good for New Zealand, it's really likely we are going to produce something that's good for understanding around the world."

Power grids have built-in redundancies - extra lines installed as backups that don't normally transmit power. The team hoped to model how solar winds, the geomagnetic currents, affected the network.

The model could be used for a risk assessment to test the potential effects of a significant solar event - a one-in-100 year solar storm - because no-one knew how the grid would hold up.

So-called "great magnetic storms" are thought to have caused widespread electrical failures and surges around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The University of Otago team have worked extensively with the Scientific Committee on Solar Terrestial Physics (SCOSTEP), an international body that runs scientific programmes and promotes research.

 - Stuff

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