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Insurance Claims Reveal Hidden Electronic Damage From Geomagnetic Storms 78

KentuckyFC writes: On 13 March 1989, a powerful geomagnetic storm severely disrupted the Hydro-Québec high-voltage grid triggering numerous circuit breakers and blacking out much of eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. Since then, Earth has been hit by numerous solar maelstroms without such large-scale disruption. But the smaller-scale effect of these storms on low voltage transmissions lines, and the equipment connected to them, has been unknown. Until now. Researchers from the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory have analyzed insurance claims for damage to industrial electrical equipment between 2000 and 2010 and found a clear correlation with geomagnetic activity. They say that the number of claims increases by up to 20 per cent on the days of highest geomagnetic activity. On this basis, they calculate that the economic impact of geomagnetic damage must amount to several billion dollars per year. That raises the question of the impact these storms have on household electronic equipment, such as computers, smartphones and tablets, and whether domestic insurance claims might throw some light on the issue.
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Insurance Claims Reveal Hidden Electronic Damage From Geomagnetic Storms

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  • Deductible (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Himmy32 ( 650060 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:07AM (#47431365)
    Probably the damages are below the cost of a homeowner/renters deductible. Lot's of difference between making a claim on a $30 microwave and a $20,000 piece of industrial equipment. Even more so the correlation would probably not be a tight as consumers probably would have a much larger standard deviation on time between equipment failure and when the claim was filed.
    • by Brit_in_the_USA ( 936704 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:12AM (#47431417)
      Then look in the sales numbers for replacement appliances and computer pars form bestbuy, newegg etc.
      • by Himmy32 ( 650060 )
        Good idea, however even if geomagnetic activity was a significant cause to consumer equipment failures, I think that would be hard to see through the random noise on other reasons for buying new equipment like sales and new models.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Good statistical analysis should be able to pick this out, particularly if you add geographic data into the mix. This is what computers are good at. One thing that you wouldn't be able to pick out from sales data that I would be interested in seeing is what makes and models are most susceptible.
    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      In addition, the generally crappy value engineered quality of consumer goods will add a lot of noise.

  • Buy Surge Protectors (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Virtucon ( 127420 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:08AM (#47431375)

    If you haven't already bought them, buy surge protectors. After replacing the fourth dishwasher in our less than 8 year old house due to circuitry issues we installed a whole house surge protector. They work and it doesn't take a magnetic storm to cause issues, most of the grid delivery is +/- 15% on voltage just in my area normally.

    • by Himmy32 ( 650060 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:13AM (#47431425)
      Not to be pedantic, but people probably would want power conditioners not surge protectors to guard against those conditions. Surge protectors are built to prevent voltage spikes where power conditioners are built to deal with brown-outs and "overvoltage" generally along with spikes.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:22AM (#47431485) Homepage

        99% of the surge suppressors you can buy at stores are useless crap that simply use a $0.29 MOV to shunt a voltage spike. they will do NOTHING to stop most real problems that come in on data lines and NOT power. Those things are designed to stop surges from your vacuum cleaner, your furnace and AC, and the industrial building down the street.

        We have customers whine every thunderstorm asking why did their $9.95 surge suppressor not stop lightning damage... It cant, in fact you can not buy anything on this planet that can stop a close or direct lightning hit.

        I have seen lightning blow up electronics that were unplugged and sitting in the cardboard box. getting a hard strike 8 feet from the south wall where all the gear was going to be installed. Every single device was fried when we opened the boxes and hooked it up.

        • My data comes in on fiber optic cable, no worries there. Also I buy APC units, they're worth the investment.

          • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

            APC used to be good, but these days most of their range is crap. They went the same route as DeWalt and many other once good brands, relying on their name to sell rather than continued quality.

            Also, they are a US company making things that connect to your network/computer, so you have to worry about the NSA. A surge protector filtering your entire internet connection as it comes into your house would be a fantastic place for a bug.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:47AM (#47431691)

          It cant, in fact you can not buy anything on this planet that can stop a close or direct lightning hit.

          I have seen lightning blow up electronics that were unplugged and sitting in the cardboard box. getting a hard strike 8 feet from the south wall where all the gear was going to be installed. Every single device was fried when we opened the boxes and hooked it up.

          Wrong. How do commercial antenna located on towers and other locations that are prime targets for large and small strikes survive at all? The CN Tower in Toronto, Canada has an average of 75 strikes a year []. Any commercial radio station in Florida would be bankrupt if they lost their transmitters after every time their antennas were hit.

          Just because you don't know how to do it [], doesn't make it impossible.

          • Doesn't do you a damned thing if the lightning hits the power line a block down the street.

          • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @02:22PM (#47432977) Homepage Journal

            Overstated, not wrong. There's nothing you can buy for the home that won't cost several times more money than the equipment being protected.

            You can buy arresters that will protect against near misses, but if a bolt of lightning hits the outdoor antenna, the TV and arrester will become smoking chunks of plastic and metal.

          • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

            Tubes are why. I suggest you read up on how Commercial high power transmitters work.

            • by Anonymous Coward

              Most commercial broadcast transmitters these days are solid state. Lots of modules ganged up. For AM stations, essentially a giant DAC. For FM and TV, more likely lots of power combiners. There probably are some big shortwave broadcasters using big tubes, although Harris and Continental both have SS transmitters. And, of course, if you have a functioning station which was built in the 60s, you're going to keep it going.

              Virtually all communications radio repeaters are solid state, and they are installed

        • Enjoying some 300-400KV sparks at home usually costs me several electronic measuring devices, this is why over time I have migrated to the old ( and lovely beautiful ) VT. With their robustness they can withstand most of the high voltage spikes one can get, unless of course it burns it by going over it power ratings. This is not to say for the poor digital controls they will "smoke", if not extremely well shielded, even under simple HV pulse in the ambient environment. Note, the dielectric impulse will fin
        • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @12:03PM (#47431799)

          I've done that on a small scale, building a can-crusher. It puts out such powerful magnetic field it's like a mini-EMP - at close range it disrupts recording equipment. Camera electronics crash.

        • I have seen lightning blow up electronics that were unplugged and sitting in the cardboard box. getting a hard strike 8 feet from the south wall where all the gear was going to be installed. Every single device was fried when we opened the boxes and hooked it up.

          I'm guessing from the resultant EMP frying the gates on the chip? Or was there visible damage from stray lightning forking from the original bolt?

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Yep. Orlando resident here. Just had some lightning damage Saturday night. I have a whole house surge suppressor, along with good quality point-of-use surge supressors that the electronics are plugged into. Had a close hit. Saw the flash and heard a "pop" noise from the light fixtures at the same instant. Followed 1 second later by the thunder. Took out the 8-port gigabit switch, the power supply for the router, and the power supply for the USB hard drive plugged into the router. Conveniently the po

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          We have customers whine every thunderstorm asking why did their $9.95 surge suppressor not stop lightning damage... It cant,

          Of course it can. Surge protectors are rated for specific Joules - an amount of energy. Around here, each power pole has an insulator that will conduct to the ground extra voltage. Power lines have quite a bit of capacitance too so unless your transformer is hit directly, lightning will most likely not affect much.


          Many surge protectors tend to come with "connected equipment warranty". If they were useless, as you say, this warranty should be terrible business for the insurer

          • by Anonymous Coward

            The best surge protector is always a whole house protector at point of ingress, absolutely no one should strictly rely on plug in surge suppressors alone, most are snake oil and can lead to a false sense of security.

      • That's next in the budget. I've had two neighbors with lightening strike damage and with our voltage problems, the Type 1 surge protector has done well for us.

    • I live in the country and installed GFI breakers at the main panel and on most every outlet plus the normal surge protector for the computers et.. and noticed that using them double like that they pop like crazy ahead of major storms so I am assuming they are sensing flux on the lines and using two inline causes the first to trip quicker than it normally might.

      • Well most "country" wiring I've experienced has multiple problems. Mostly from old, unmaintained wiring and transformers but it sounds like you've got enough of that already. While most storms will cause havoc, just the utility not giving a shit will probably cause most of the failures inside a home.

  • Tablets? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:16AM (#47431445)
    Geomagnetic storms induce very slow changes (over minutes to several hours) in the magnetic field, hence the induced voltage in electrical circuits is very small unless you have very large loops in the circuits (large, as in miles). A tablet is not going pick up any significant voltage, and would have more induced electric currents by setting on top of an extension cord, or attaching a cover that uses a permanent magnet... or walking by a fridge. There is a small chance maybe something happens if it was plugged in, but today most electronics use a switching power supply that can hand a decent range of voltages, and the mains voltage would have to go way out of spec, and then most likely only damage the power supply. And a lot of those power supplies can work at dual voltage, so if you are on a 110 service, you would need it to spike over 220 V to do damage.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Just to go along with what you said, the PSU on my computer is rated for 80v-250v and 50hz-60hz. Going to need a spike greater than 250v to cause damage or a very quick spike. Many switched PSUs switch over 1mil times per second and will quickly adapt to an increased voltage up to their limit.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Let's add some numbers to this. The Carrington Event had a peak change in magnetic field of about 1.5 microteslas. Suppose your table for some reason was 30 cm square and had a hundred turns of wire inside it around the perimeter, giving a total effective area of 9 square meters. In order for that 1.5 microtesla field to induce 1 V in the loop, the magnetic field change would need to happen in about 15 microseconds.... the actual change took hours. Even if it happened in a minute, the induced voltage w
  • "they calculate that the economic impact of geomagnetic damage must amount to several billion dollars per year."

    We can not tolerate this economic disaster hitting the very low profit insurance industry! WE shoud act and demand congress solve this issue by blowing up the SUN to eliminate these solar geomagnetic storms.

  • by Sqr(twg) ( 2126054 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:23AM (#47431497)

    xkcd []

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:25AM (#47431513)

    "That raises the question of the impact these storms have on household electronic equipment, such as computers, smartphones and tablets...

    When searching for examples of electronics that may have been damaged over their useful life by external forces, perhaps you shouldn't pick the things manufacturers have deemed as disposable equipment these days.

    How else are they going to sell you the new model 12 months after you bought the "new" model...

  • by Technician ( 215283 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:25AM (#47431519)

    Time to apply science to the problem. What is known, what values are involved, and what breaks down.

    Long distance transmission lines have two problems when there is a relatively high atmospheric current. They are long conductors feeding transformers that are not designed to shunt large components of DC resulting in core saturation and high current. This is measurable. The first effect noticed was by the railroad when telegraph relays activated and sometimes burned out.

    The voltage induced current has two components. 1 Some current was due to the current directly into the long wire. 2 Some current was due to ground potential changing due to high current in the ground.

    How to protect? For ground potential issues, simple pairs of wires provide high common mode rejection. This is common with telephone circuits as protection from induced hum and noise from a noisy electrical environment. Overvoltage protection in the form of lightning arresters is the second protection. Most phone loops are relatively short reducing the ground voltage gradient problem to non existant levels. Long distance hops are by Microwave Relay or Fiber Optic, both providing protection from ground gradients and long pick up paths.

    Shrink the scale to inside a home by comparison. All internal house wireing is orders of magnatude shorter than transmission lines, CATV, and phone lines. Small DC capible antennas result in very low current if exposed. The home is generally protected by gutters on the eves, mildly conductive building materials such as wood, brick, etc that are not insulated to very low leakage at high voltages such as the insulatin on transmission lines. Net result is the very small currents are shunted by the building itself. Go up on the roof during a geo storm and see if you have any static electricity issues. Probably not.

    For homeowners, this is a non issue due to the lack of an effective gathering surface properly insulated to collect enough current to cause any damage. The collector is too small and the leakage path to ground is too high.

  • Is peanuts, nobody's going to care.

  • Is this news? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 ) <> on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:34AM (#47431579) Journal

    I thought it was common knowledge, ask any admin of a network with 100ft+ lines running between buildings. The gear connected to them often fries when solar flares hit. Sometimes it happens so reliably that they have a procedure to disconnect the lines when a solar flare is coming.

    • by dAzED1 ( 33635 )
      solar flares != geomagnetic storm. solar flares /cause/ geomagnetic storms, but the storms can persist past the incident of the flare. At least, according to my understanding...
      • by danlip ( 737336 )

        Solar flares are associated with coronal mass ejections, and CMEs cause geomagnetic storms if they hit the earth. Travel time is about 3-4 days days, but can be as little as 18 hours (as was the case in the 1859 Carrington event).

    • The elevated lines between buildings are rarely protected from a build up of a static charge as routers and bridges were not built with this in mind. On the physical layer, both ends of the wire are terminated into an isolation transformer with no discharge path to ground. This is an installation design fault against the guy that designed the installation. Lightning protection is often a gas discharge tube for a lower breakdown voltage. A high current discharge through a protection device can produce a

  • Power conditioners may handle more issues, but surge protectors will probably be enough protection to limit the actual damage from geomagnetic storm since brown outs usually do not cause major damage. Yeah I know low voltage over a while can cause considerable damage to some equipment. Maybe a low voltage cut off would help with brown outs. So one either needs surge protectors with expensive coils and caps in addition to the a $0.29 MOV. Now are they needed for the whole house or just the expensive and de
  • Isn't that what caused the problem in the first place, someone (in this case, the sun) throwing some light (in this case, a solar flare) on the subject (in this case, Earth's magnetic field)? Fighting fire with fire only goes so far, people...
  • Solar activity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @11:49AM (#47431709)

    I confirmed the effect of solar activity countrywide myself a few years ago...
    I used to work in the NOC (Network operations center) for a major Telco. The job is pretty strait forward, there's an application that gets alerts from a vast and very diverse set of equipment all across the country and displays "alarms" when they are having problems. There are always alarms, but many are transient and a lot of the equipment will fix itself. Your job is to know what's bad, how bad it is and how to intervene if you need to. A remote in the backwoods of Georgia has a fire alarm... Call the fire department who will break down the door, hose down the equipment and put 10,000 people out of service for a week? Or notice that the same remote has a minor fan alarm thats not on your display because of the severity and know that what really is going on is the fan burned up and you can just send a field tech to replace it.

    Anyways, that jobs a lot like war. Long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of terror. 100k people without 911 service wares at you. But in the slow times it's really boring so I was surfing one day and found this: []
    It's a NASA website that shows the activity in space around the sun/earth. You can even download spreadsheets of past data.
    This got me thinking so I exported alarm activity on the millions of pieces of equipment I watched for the same time period.
    At first it didn't match up, but then I remembered there are local causes to. So I found some data on electrical storms and subtracted that...
    Tada! I had a perfect graph showing the rise and fall of solar activity that matched nicely with my alarm activity. There were a few anomalies, but I'm not scientist. I could see that the effect was more negligible on our fiber networks, but still there. I attributed this to power fluctuations.

    Excited I ran into my bosses office and told him to look at my charts. He said "That's fantastic! Good work! Really interesting! But useless I'm sad to say..."
    I was baffled...
    "Do you want me to block out the sun? This really is neat, but that's about it. We can't do anything about it."
    I thought about it and finally agreed. It's is neat, but also unavoidable. At best we could use it to put more techs on staff on certain days, but that would be about it. And the fact is, there's ALWAYS someone on call... so, though being interesting, it's also irrelevant. About the most interesting part was that fiber made the issue go away... but we already knew fiber was better in just about all cases. This was just more proof.

    • The guy who runs the website works for NASA, but I'm fairly certain that it's a side project, and not a NASA-funded website. (if it was, they'd have NASA logos on it, and not ads)

      Solar Monitor [] used to be hosted by NASA, but it's currently at Trinity College, Dublin.

      NASA funded projects would include Helioviewer (also ESA funded) and ISWA []

      However ... there was something a couple of years back and now NASA's not allowed to provide space weather predictions to the public ... so you have to get forecast informa

  • So now, whenever there is a large CME, anybody who has an electronics failure can file an insurance claim even though there's an 80% chance it was an ordinary failure. Insurance companies will naturally respond with and exclusion for CME damage. It's not a problem now, but in 5 billion years when the sun expands beyond Earth's orbit there will be nobody to pay for all our failed electronics.
  • Switching power supplies actually provide decent protection against moderate surges. You want to find things damaged by this kind of incident? You'd want to check claims for all the things in your house that contain *motors* which run on line voltage: washer, dryer, refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, etc. Your computer etc can take an extra 50 volts basically forever, but motors cannot. (Also, heating elements will tend to burn out. An extra 20 volts will make your wife go through blow dryers at a prodigiou

  • How much of the equipment was actually faulty?

    If the news tells them there's a major solar storm that can destroy electronics, how much of these insurance claims are simply people seeking a free upgrade for a old, working piece of equipment?

    You will notice that on the worst days, there were not significantly more claims; just that on significant solar days they were more claims probably because those days got into world news.

    Or insurance companies themselves only allow such claims during certain perio

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