Solar Event 2012 Exposed, what are the real risks to your computer?

This solar flare article’s contents are copied directly from my blog article on 15 Causes of Hard Disk Corruption.

http://www.advantage77.com/2012/02/03/15-causes-of-hard-disk-corruption/

Solar Event 2012 –   (1.8 years still to go according to NASA) “Scientists believe it could damage everything from emergency services’ systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices, through to “everyday” items such as home computers, iPods and Sat Navs.” J.R. Guthrie

Joe M on 02-08-2012 at 10:01 pm

J.R., towards the end of your response to the post I made on your Blog, you had a quote, “Scientists believe it could damage everything from emergency services’ systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices, through to “everyday” items such as home computers, iPods and Sat Navs.”  I found the quote made by Andrew Hough, writer for The Telegraph, a UK paper.  He attributes his information to NASA but does not say who or where at NASA the information came from.  For all I know he made it up.  I checked the NASA website and could not find any such quote made by any NASA Solar Scientist, but did find the following regarding the January 22 storm:

http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/podcasting/TWAN_01_27_12.html “Antti Pulkkinen, NASA Solar Scientist: “We’re expecting to reach the solar maximum in terms of activity, sometime around next year. So we’re expecting to have more of these kinds of solar eruptions in the coming two or three years.”

Closely monitored by NASA scientists, the storm caused no major disruptions to operating technological systems in space or on the ground, such as satellite communications or high voltage power transmission.”

The higher an object is from the surface of the earth, the greater chance it has to be affected by a solar flare or by “solar wind”.  Like the article below explains, the radiation does not get much below 100 kilometers above the surface of the earth.  One hundred kilometers equates to about 62 miles!  That’s pretty far up.  Steve at Seagate told me the same thing today but did not use the 100 km height.

After reading up on the subject of solar flares today, and until I see more convincing evidence, I’m not going to believe solar flares will affect computer memory (RAM) or hard disks.  At this point in time, it just doesn’t make sense to me, unless the information contained on the computer is somehow put there by a satellite.  I value your knowledge of computers but am not buying solar flares as an explanation as a possible reason for what went wrong with my HDD this past Saturday.  I attribute to something I cannot explain at this point but will keep a close eye on the drive.  If it happens to be bad sectors, as you said it could have been, it will occur again in the future.  Personally I do not believe it was bad sectors, as Apple’s Disk Utility is normally pretty good at pointing those out.  I didn’t even get that far when I ran Disk Verify.

The disk is a Seagate and is less than 8 months old.  It’s under warranty with Seagate until April 4, 2014, according to Steve at seagate tech support.  He would have replaced it today but I opted to hang on and try it for a while before giving it up.  If I have another issue with the drive I will RMA it ASAP and replace with a new drive.

I found the article below from The Journal.  It was pretty comprehensive and good information.

j.

Explainer: Can a solar storm cause any damage?

http://www.thejournal.ie/explainer-can-a-solar-storm-cause-any-damage-336803-Jan2012/

  •         J.R. Guthrie on 02-09-2012 at 10:43 am

    I remember speaking with Dave Graham (one of my subcontractors who is an Electrical Engineer)  Dave says, a large flare is emminent (similar to 1859 that burned the Telegraph system down) “If the USA is in the way, the last guy will be without power for 5 years.  That time is calculated by how many transformers are in inventory, plus how fast they can make them.”  http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2008/06may_carringtonflare/

    Dave Graham, I know we always ask you the hard ones like Fukushima, but what is the real risk here?

    I have read this issue before, Gamma particles, Neutron particles, and highly charged Proton particles can, and do modify contents of RAM.  I will find that IBM article, but it was well over 20 years ago when I read it.  I found this article below while looking for the IBM article. Http://www.usenix.org/event/fast10/tech/full_papers/zhang.pdf

    Errors in the memory chip are one source of memory corruptions. Memory errors can be classified as soft errors which randomly flip bits in RAM without leaving any permanent damage, and hard errors which corrupt bits in a repeatable manner due to physical damage. Researchers have discovered radiation mechanisms that cause errors in semiconductor devices at terrestrial altitudes. Nearly three decades ago, May and Woods found that if an alpha particle penetrates the die surface, it can cause a random, single-bit error [35]. Zeigler and Lanford found that cosmic rays can also disrupt electronic circuits [62]. More recent studies and measurements confirm the effect of atmospheric neutrons causing single event upsets (SEU) in memories [40, 41].

  • Dave Graham on 02-09-2012 at 10:38 pm

    JR et All…

    The risk is real.  Our defenses are limited.

    Don’t sweat the telegraphs, but it IS the same thing that took out most of the eastern Canada power grid in 1989.  See the Aussie govt. (one of the more reliable sources) at http://www.ips.gov.au/Educational/1/3/12  Google for more.

    The politics are our most vulnerable problem.  It takes a LOT of guts to be the power administrator who needs to say “Disconnect every power utility from all others, and let them run on their own (or fail).”  The main problem is our grid is almost completely inter-connected, resulting in single-conductor spans running thousands of miles long.  That’s a juicy target for a solar flare or a CME.  If our lines are much shorter (100 miles, max) – read disconnected from each other- we will have far less damage.

    If we take a major CME hit and the grid is linked, we WILL lose a LOT of HV transformers and switchgear.  The manufacturing lead time to replace the transformers needed is 4-5 years to put us back to square-today.

    Most of the DOD satellites are fairly well hardened (atomic war expected), and can be shut down and faced for least damage.  Much of the commercial telcom birds are not so strong, and again the politics of turning off the phones and MSNBC feeds from Democratic National Headquarters will be a tough call for some administrator.

    We will have a few hours warning from SOHO on the first wave of high-energy particles with enough mass to blast comms into oblivion, and 10-20 hours warning to get the power grid into best-defense (lots of people without power) posture.

    If we DO have the guts to make the hard decisions, we can weather a bad CME with moderate damage.  Some places will be out of power for 1-30 days in the best case.

    -Look up — It is not a question of IF, it is WHEN.  Our Star can be a fickle friend.

    Dave Graham

  • Dave Graham on 02-09-2012 at 10:46 pm

    JR,Joe –

    IBM is correct, but in practice it doesn’t matter.  Unless the particle is VERY high energy, it’s not going to make through the metal case of the computer.

    I suppose it could sneak through a perforated or slotted vent, and make it in, but we are talking about individual quanta going about their business, and the ODDS of a hit are so rare that you would rack it up to another kind of transient error, unless the RAM was damaged and would not pass the next check on boot.

    If the flux density was high enough to be causing general errors – read you are in the path of a strong stream of particles- you will be dead before you realize the RAM has failed, and you won’t care.

    I know the IBM statement you are talking about.  The main practical concern was hardening satellites so they could continue spying while the solar storm was in progress.

    The National Security Folks predict that the next war (if it comes) will begin with an all-out computer attack just as the main stream of a CME gets here.  We might not realize an attack was in progress for a while…  The other side of that coin is that the bad guys will have to wait for an opportunity to start the attack.  They will likely have somewhere between 10 and 20 hours to load their guns.  The gammas arrive in about eight minutes, the neutrinos and electrons take 10-30 minutes, the fastest betas (and heavier) start getting here in about 8 hours, depending on how strong the CME was that sent them on their way.

    BTW – vett check time.  Remember Fukushima daiichi?  While the anti-nukes still try to exploit the accident, the only humans who received dangerous levels of exposure are the firemen who waded into the “hot” water under reactor #3.  They got sick, but have recovered.  They are being monitored for cancer and cataracts.  One cataract case, no cancers yet.  They are lucky.  I had thought them to be dead men walking when they got out of there.  As for the media hype, I rest my case.

    DG

  •         J.R. Guthrie on 02-11-2012 at 10:57 pm

    Joe, based upon this very current data and expert analysis, I can clearly see this possibility.  You stated updates had occured.  Doing an update during a solar flare, can interfere with communications, which can corrupt the downloaded update, which when applied, corrupts the operating system! Now that’s a real risk of Solar Flare and corruption that none can ignore.  You answered it yourself!

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