Rare ‘severe’ geomagnetic storm is hitting Earth right now

A rare G4, “severe” geomagnetic storm, is underway. It has the potential to disrupt radio transmission signals, cause problems with the electrical grid and have a range of other possibly costly impacts.

The event, which is just one notch below the highest category of solar storm, began at about 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, according to the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. The geomagnetic storm is the result of a pair of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, that left the Sun on March 15 and are now interacting with Earth’s atmosphere and geomagnetic field.

In a press briefing on Tuesday, NOAA scientists said the two CMEs may have unexpectedly combined as they sped toward Earth, which could explain why the geomagnetic storm has been so strong.

Coronal mass ejections, which are essentially magnetic clouds ejected at high velocity from the sun, can affect the electricity grid, radio transmissions and GPS signals, among other things, when they interact with the planet’s magnetic field. According to NOAA, there had not been any reported abnormalities in the U.S. power grid as of noon eastern time on Tuesday.

However, there have been numerous reports of “vivid” sightings of the Northern Lights across the northern tier of the U.S., including Washington State and Minnesota. The G4 solar storm is expected to lead to a widespread viewing of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, on Tuesday night from Alaska across Canada and much of Eurasia.

It’s possible that the Northern Lights will be visible as far south as Tennessee, New Mexico and Oklahoma on Tuesday night, NOAA experts said, depending on the evolution of the event’s intensity.

Aurora forecast

Northern Lights forecast for March 17, 2015.

IMAGE: NOAA

The Space Weather Prediction Center issued a G1, or minor, geomagnetic storm watch for Wednesday in response to the two recent CMEs, with the first effects to be felt on Tuesday. Scientists think the two CMEs unexpectedly combined into “one sort of larger shock front traveling and intersecting Earth’s orbit,” according to Robert Rutledge of the Space Weather Prediction Center.

The CMEs in this case were not oriented head-on in relation to Earth, causing forecasters to think the planet would just receive “just a glancing blow,” rather than a severe geomagnetic storm, Rutledge says.

Severe solar storms such as this one have the potential to cause “possible widespread voltage control problems” in the electrical grid. It could also disrupt tracking of spacecraft, and impede the efficacy of high-frequency radio signals, such as those used by flights that travel across the Arctic between North America and Asia. These storms can also degrade the accuracy of satellite navigation.

According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, these storms tend to occur about 100 times per every 11-year solar cycle, or about 60 days per each 11-year cycle. According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, the ongoing event is one of just two G4 events in the current solar cycle.

Dalton Highway

The Northern Lights seen from the Dalton Highway in Alaska on March 17, 2015.

IMAGE: MARKETA MURRAY/SPACEWEATHER.COM

This event is nowhere near the strength that would be required to create a nightmare scenario that space weather specialists have been warning about for years. In that scenario, a powerful geomagnetic storm, a G5 on the five-point scale, shuts down the electrical grid, wreaks havoc on radio communications, GPS devices and aerial navigation systems, costing billions in damage.

Solar storm could disrupt GPS, cause Northern Lights show

This strong solar flare Wednesday is part of an ongoing solar storm that is bombarding earth with charged, magnetic particles today. NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

This strong solar flare Wednesday is part of an ongoing solar storm that is bombarding earth with charged, magnetic particles today. NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

Look outside. Believe it or not, it’s storming right now.

The Earth is presently being bombarded with a powerful geomagnetic storm. It’s the result of explosions on the sun two days ago that threw off coronal mass ejections, globs — a billion tons or so — of the sun’s plasma along with magnetic clouds of charged atomic particles, in the direction of Earth.

It’s the strongest geomagnetic storm — known as a category G4 — since fall 2013. While such storms can sometimes cause fluctuations in power grids, there are no reports of outages or other disruptions from this one, said Brent Gordon, space weather services branch chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Satellite disruption is not expected, but people could see glitches with their global positioning systems today, center director Thomas Berger said. Services such as the Google Maps app rely on satellites to lock onto ground positions, but that signal must travel through the ionosphere, an area of Earth’s upper atmosphere with charged, magnetized particles, he said. As those particles are reacting to the solar storm, GPS service could be spotty, he said.

How long the solar storm will last is uncertain, researchers said. But if it continues into the evening, Michigan could be in store for a light show in the night sky. The aurora borealis, dancing bands of green and red light in the sky caused by electrical activity in the upper atmosphere, is typically confined to areas around the North and South Poles. But Alaska, Washington, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin all saw the so-called northern lights shows before dawn today. And the aurora borealis could be seen as far south as the central U.S. tonight, Gordon said.

“If the storm continues into nighttime hours, Michigan is certainly going to be in a prime location to see this, given what we’ve seen so far,” he said.

Northern Lights may be visible tonight

Discarded Russian submarines could cause a nuclear disaster in the Arctic

The Arctic could become a site of future turmoil, and not just because of the emerging geopolitical tensions and militarization in the region.

Beyond concerns of a frozen conflict in the icy north, there is the additional fear that the Barents and Kara Seas could become the location of a slow-motion nuclear disaster. Until 1991 the Soviet Union used the seas as a junkyard where it would dispose of its nuclear waste.

Sunken Russian Nuclear WasteGoogle

According to the Bellona Foundation, citing the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authorities (NRPA), the Soviet Union dumped “19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery; 17,000 containers of radioactive waste,” and three nuclear submarines in the seas.

Disposing of nuclear waste and spent reactors at sea was actually a common practice around the world until the early 1970s. But the Soviet Union dumped a significant amount of material into bodies of water that were sometimes not that far from neighboring countries.

Three scuttled nuclear submarines are the most dangerous of the disposals for the overall safety of the region  — the K-27, the K-278, and the K-159, according to The Moscow Times. Of those, the K-27 is the one most likely to cause a Chernobyl-like event in which the casings of the reactors fail and dangerous amounts of radiation escape into the environment.

The K-27 is particularly risky, the BBC reports, due to its unique design. The submarine, which was launched in 1962, was experimentally developed with two previously untested liquid-metal cooled reactors. Soon after deployment the submarine began emitting high levels of radiation, poisoning its crew.

In 1981, the Soviet Union sunk the submarine in the Kara Sea. But the sub was scuttled at a depth of only 99 feet (30 meters), significantly below international guidelines.

The Moscow Times also reports that the K-159 and K-278 are potential causes for concern. The K-278 is at depths too deep for possible retrieval if it begins to leak radioactive material into the ocean.

The K-159, meanwhile, remains a point of contention between Russia and Norway — Oslo believes that the submarine and its potentially leaky reactor could disrupt fisheries along Norway’s northern shore.

Soviet Submarine K-159Reuters Photographer/REUTERSAn undated photo of a Russian 1960’s era November class nuclear attack submarine similar to the K-159 which sank in the Barents Sea on Saturday morning. The ageing submarine sank during a storm as it was being towed into port for scrapping and upto eight service men were feared killed, the Defence Ministry said.

“K-159 represents the biggest potential for emission, considering the levels of radioactivity in the reactors, compared with other dumped or sunken objects in the Kara Sea with spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste,” Ingar Amundsen, the head of the NRPA told the Barents Observer.

In August 2014, the NRPA and Russian authorities conducted a joint investigation into possible nuclear leaks emanating from K-159. After the probe, Russian scientists reported that there were no signs that 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel had begun leaking out of the submarine, Bellona reports.

National Geographic has previously reported that the chance of a leak from a nuclear submarine was miniscule in the near term, as reactors are shielded. Individual fuel rods within the reactor are then further encased in a special alloy to slow corrosion. This means that reactors should take centuries to leak into the ocean, by which time a majority of the nuclear material would have decayed.

But that assumes a level of durability that older Soviet models might not have. And a possible Russian-related environmental disaster in a contested geopolitical frontier like the Arctic could have unpredictable consequences.

Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.

 

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien is our guide.

MILES O’BRIEN: Three years after the meltdowns, the road to Fukushima is still a gauntlet of roadblocks and strict security checks.

And inside the exclusion zone, it remains a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time. We were on our way to one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, granted the NewsHour permission for a rare tour inside the plant, where three nuclear reactors melted down after the great Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011.

In the seismically isolated and radioactively protected emergency response center, we met the man in the hottest seat of all here, superintendent Akira Ono. He runs an unprecedented decommissioning project that will not be done for decades. He prefers not to call it a cleanup.

“After all, if you are just cleaning up after an accident,” he told me, “there is a lack of quality, meaning speed is the only concern. I feel that isn’t enough. We need to look ahead, 30 to 40 years.”

To see it firsthand, we had to suit up. We must also wear a full face mask and respirator for good measure, resembling astronauts on the way to a fully fueled rocket. We donned special shoes and hardhats, then boarded a bus that would get us as close to the meltdowns as the laws of physics and common sense would allow us.

Fukushima Daiichi or, number one, was a complex of six boiling water reactors designed by General Electric. They were built on sloping terrain, sandwiched between a mountain ridge and the Pacific Ocean. The nuclear cores are between 600 and 800 feet from the harbor.

Three of those cores are now melted down, still steaming hot, their steel containment structures breached. Engineers believe some of the nuclear fuel has melted right through the steel containment vessels on to a concrete basement floor, where it is exposed to groundwater.

As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with the contaminated water that is used to cool the melted-down cores. The result is an awful lot of water that needs to be captured, or else it ends up in the ocean.

Each and every day, about 100,000 gallons of fresh groundwater seeps into the basements of the plant, where it becomes contaminated with a witch’s brew of radionuclide. TEPCO is furiously trying to keep pace with the water. They finish a new quarter-million-gallon holding tank here about every other day.

But the hastily built tanks have been leaking, prompting a switch to a welded design, buttressed by gutters, dikes, trenches and water sealants. Regardless, no one disputes the plant is steadily leaking radiation-tainted water into the sea.

“When you go out to the open ocean, there is very little contamination found,” says superintendent Ono. “Basically, the contamination is limited to the port.”

At the port, they are bolstering the last line of defense. This water-shielding wall should be complete in September. Behind it is a system that injects a chemical into the ground that turns water into a viscous gel, stemming the flow to the sea. The company is also testing an idea to bury cooling pipes near the melted reactors to freeze the ground, making impermeable ice plugs in walls that would keep the clean and contaminated water apart.

But all of this is clearly not sustainable. In about three years, they will run out of space for new water holding tanks. Then what?

Masayuki Ono, no relation to the superintendent is general manager of TEPCO’s nuclear power division.

“We can’t solve this problem by simply increasing the number of tanks,” he told me. “We need to solve the fundamental issue of underground water coming in.”

And TEPCO is also investing a lot in this sophisticated radiation water-filtering technology. In trial runs, the advanced liquid processing system, ALPS, has cleaned up 12.5 million gallons of water. ALPS removes cesium, strontium and 60 other radioactive nuclides, but not tritium. There is no practical way to factor out this isotope of hydrogen.

“It is hard to remove tritium with scientific methods,” he says. “But given its biological properties, it is a radioactive substance with a very limited risk.”

Nuclear engineer Lake Barrett worked for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Three Mile Island in the wake of the meltdown there in 1979. He is now a special adviser to TEPCO’s president.

LAKE BARRETT, TEPCO special advisor: When you combine all the water on the site with the tritium, the tritium levels will be so low at Fukushima that they would meet the international drinking water standards.

MILES O’BRIEN: TEPCO has no authorization from the Japanese government, local residents or fishermen to discharge any water at all, including what is leaking, from the Fukushima Daiichi site.

But a release of millions of gallons of water tainted with tritium into the ocean seems inevitable.

LAKE BARRETT: You can release it into the ocean, in a normal controlled release, which is what I personally believe they ought to do. But they have to work through the fishermen and all the governors and all the social issues that have to be addressed with that.

MILES O’BRIEN: The long-term solution here is to remove and secure the nuclear fuel. At unit four, they have begun that process. This reactor was shut down for maintenance when the tsunami hit. And so the fuel had been moved into this storage pool.

Even though the reactor wasn’t running, during the worst of the crisis, hydrogen gas accumulated in the reactor buildings, causing a series of explosions. Debris rained down into the pool, landing on top of the stored fuel assemblies. Workers have now carefully plucked away the pieces and have begun removing the 1,533 fuel assemblies stored here.

“It is assumed that some debris fell through the gaps,” engineer Takashi Hara told me. “So far, we don’t think it is anything that will cause the fuel to get stuck. However, it could be the case in the future, so we’re proceeding very slowly.”

The fuel assemblies are transported in casts that will be stored in a more seismically secure common storage pool. If all goes as planned, this process will be complete by the end of this year.

But removing the melted fuel from units one, two and three is another matter entirely. The radiation levels are simply too high for humans to ever get close enough to clean up. Even so, TEPCO is vowing to have the fuel debris removed from one of the reactors by mid 2020. But how? The only way to do that is to invent robots that can do the job. And that is precisely what they’re trying to do.

LAKE BARRETT: They’re probably the most robotic society, you know, there is on earth. Now you have to take it to another level, you know, to work in the high radiation field and to do things that they have never done before.

MILES O’BRIEN: There are many things that will have to be done here that have never been done before in order to decommission this plant.

“We will need to incorporate more and more new things,” superintendent Ono told me. “You can’t brood on the past for answers. I want to take on the various challenges with a constructive attitude.”

Before we left, they carefully scanned all of us and checked the dosimeters that we carried along the way. During our four-and-a-half-hour tour, we absorbed as much radiation as we would have in a single chest X-ray. It was dark when we rode the bus out of the exclusion zone. It was a quiet ride, as we all processed the magnitude of the mess.

Three years after the meltdowns, the crisis has not ended here. In some ways, it is still unfolding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next Wednesday, Miles will have a report on the Fukushima meltdown’s effect on fish in the surrounding waters.

And we want to note, these stories were produced before Miles’ trip to the Philippines, where an accident led to the loss of his left arm. As we said earlier this week, we, his NewsHour colleagues, are in awe of his courage.

Hundreds protest dropped charges over Fukushima crisis

Tokyo (AFP) – Hundreds rallied in Tokyo Saturday to protest Japanese prosecutors’ decision to drop charges over the Fukushima nuclear crisis, with no one yet punished nearly three years after the “man-made” disaster.

No one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of radiation released when a tsunami triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake crashed into the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011, swamping cooling systems and sparking reactor meltdowns.

However, some Fukushima residents committed suicide owing to fears over radiation, while others died during evacuation. Official data released last week showed that 1,656 people have died in the prefecture from stress and other illnesses related to the disaster three years ago.

“There are many victims of the accident, but there is no (charged) assailant,” chief rally organiser Ruiko Muto, 61, told the protesters, displaying a photograph of Kawauchi village which was hit by the nuclear accident.

“We are determined to keep telling our experiences as victims to pursue the truth of the accident, and we want to avoid a repeat of the accident in the future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes around the plant, with scientists warning some areas may have to be abandoned.

Fukushima: A rare look inside the nuclear plant th …Play video

Fukushima: A rare look inside the nuclear plant three …

“I used to grow organic rice… But I can’t do it anymore because of consumers’ worries over radioactive contamination,” Kazuo Nakamura, 45, a farmer from Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture, told the rally.

“I want (Fukushima operator) TEPCO officials and bureaucrats of the central government to eat the Fukushima-made rice,” he shouted to applause.

A parliamentary report has said Fukushima was a man-made disaster caused by Japan’s culture of “reflexive obedience” and not just by the tsunami that crippled the plant.

Some 15,000 people whose homes or farms were hit by radiation from the stricken plant filed a criminal complaint in 2012 against the Japanese government and officials of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).

However, prosecutors in September decided not to charge any of them with negligence over the nuclear disaster.

Junko Honda, who evacuated to the northern island of …
Junko Honda, who evacuated to the northern island of Hokkaido with her family, speaks at a rally in  …

– Criminal complaint –

Campaigners immediately appealed against the decision by the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, which has the power to order the defendants to be tried.

The committee members comprise 11 citizens who are chosen at random by lot.

But the appeal was made in Tokyo instead of Fukushima, a move campaigners say is “aimed at preventing us from filing a complaint against their decision in Fukushima, where many residents share our anger and grief”.

“We want to share with many people in Tokyo our anger and sadness over the fact that no one has taken responsibility three years after the accident,” one of the organisers, 43-year-old Miwa Chiwaki, told AFP.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency …

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit the the crippled Fukushima Dai-i …

“We pin our hopes on sound judgement by people in Tokyo,” Chiwaki said.

Campaigners allege that government officials and TEPCO executives failed to take necessary measures to shield the plant against the March 2011 tsunami.

They also hold them responsible for a delay in announcing data predicting how radiation would spread from the facility in the aftermath of the accident.

But prosecutors decided to exempt all of them, saying that TEPCO and government officials could not predict an earthquake and tsunami of that size, and there was nothing wrong with their post-quake response under unexpected emergency situations.

Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing the campaigners, said “there were lots of measures that officials could have taken to prevent the disaster.”

“We won’t give up indictment of the officials,” he said.

Campaigners last year filed a separate complaint to prosecutors over TEPCO’s handling of increasing waters contaminated with radiation after used for cooling the stricken reactors, accusing them of committing pollution-related crimes.

Separately, TEPCO officials and senior government officials face several civil lawsuits that were filed by thousands of plaintiffs seeking compensation for mental and financial damage, demanding full restoration of the pre-accident environment in their hometowns.

The waves created by the tsunami swept more than 18,000 people to their deaths across the country and destroyed entire communities.

The Sun is trying to kill us all

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It is known that the sun's corona is roughly 100 times hotter than its photosphere -- the sun's visible layer. The reason for this mysterious heating of the solar coronal plasma, however, is not yet entirely understood. A research team in India has developed a set of numerical computations to shed light on this phenomenon, and present this week in Physics of Plasmas, analysis examining the role of chaotic magnetic fields in potential heating mechanisms.
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