Every 11 years, a series of magnetic storms roils across the sun, bombarding us with disruptive showers of charged particles. The particles wiggle the Earth's magnetic field, which, in turn, can induce enough extraneous current in high-voltage power lines to bring down the entire electrical grid. One such event in 1989 left 6 million Canadians in the dark for nine hours and cost $10 million to fix. When the solar cycle peaks again next year, however, utility companies will be prepared.
A monitoring program called Sunburst 2000 will constantly check power lines around the world, looking for small induced currents that indicate the first puffs of a solar squall. The information will be relayed to power system managers within five seconds so they can adjust the current to keep the lines from overloading. "Sunburst 2000 will allow power companies to carry more electricity more of the time and only back off when a storm hits," says Bill Feero, an engineer with Electric Research and Management in State College, Pennsylvania. Later, Feero plans to link Sunburst 2000 with space outposts to gain an extra half-hour of warning. With any luck, the next wave of solar storms won't take anyone by surprise.