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Mapping Project Aims to Protect Grid from Space Weather

image credit: Areas in red are covered in the latest phase of the mapping project. Credit: Oregon State University
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DW Keefer is a Denver-based energy journalist who writes extensively for national and international publications on all forms of electric power generation, utility regulation, business models...

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  • Apr 14, 2020

Researchers from Oregon State University will map the electrical properties of Earth’s crust and mantle beneath the southern and southwestern United States as part of a two-year, $2.5 million agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The project plays a role in protecting the electrical grid from currents generated in the ground and in built infrastructure by extreme solar storms and against damage from electromagnetic pulses used as weapons, an area of growing concern.

Extreme solar storms are “space weather” events that naturally occur when disturbances in the solar atmosphere result in coronal mass ejections that send streams of charged particles toward Earth. The particles can strongly disturb Earth’s magnetic field.

The largest such events are also known as “Carrington events,” for British astronomer Richard Carrington, who documented the connection between these solar activities and impacts on Earth. The original and largest Carrington event in 1859 caused telegraphs to malfunction and burn, among other impacts. In 1989, a solar storm caused a widespread blackout in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Electromagnetic pulses are sudden bursts of electromagnetic radiation following a nuclear detonation that can cause widespread electric disruption, even if the detonation occurs in space. Such pulses share some important characteristics with naturally occurring Carrington events.

The university’s mapping work began 15 years ago with funding from the National Science Foundation’s EarthScope Program. The initial intent was to collect information about the structure and evolution of the North American continent.

As the researchers began to collect data, they discovered the information being amassed also could be valuable for efforts to protect the power grid.

When the EarthScope program ended, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded the project for two years. Now Oregon State will work with the USGS by providing the data in order to complete the work over the next several years.

About two-thirds of the U.S. was mapped during the EarthScope program. The researchers now will focus on the southern and southwestern United States, which is the last piece of the contiguous 48 states to be mapped.

A series of field crews from the private research firm Green Geophysics will travel to pre-identified grid points, each about 70 kilometers from the next. At each point crew members will place instruments, collect data for a number of weeks and then retrieve the equipment and move to the next location.

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