At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, teams of forecasters work around the clock trying to detect solar storms.
They sit in a dark room, hunched in front of one of 10 or so computer screens, each with a different image of the sun. They look for sun spots, which are the source of solar flares, the origin of storms.
When they spot one, they have to wait 15 hours or more to know how bad it is; that is about when the storm’s charged particles reach a satellite about a million miles from earth that chief forecaster Bob Rutledge compared to, “a hurricane buoy 50 miles off the coast of Miami.”
The forecasters stay so closely attuned because solar storms can cause enormous damage to the power grid.
All along, the forecasters are sending out alerts about the storm to utilities, grid operators and federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Western Area Power Administration, which operates transmission lines and sells electricity to utilities in the western United States, is one of many power companies receiving those alerts.
Bill Timmons, a maintenance engineer for WAPA, said when his grid operators get the alert from Boulder, they pull out their solar storm operating procedures, which they are now required to have under federal rules. What they do next depends on the intensity of the storm.
“It’s the same thing as a watch, warning or an alert, like a hurricane or tornado,” he said.
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