Random Musings

Solar storms

If solar storms as intense as the ones recorded in the last 200 years strike now, it could wreak total havoc as we are now 100 times more dependent on technology than we were back then.  In terms of cycles, we are fast entering a period in which a huge storm could strike.  The following excerpts illustrate that this threat is very real and what could potentially take place if a strong solar storm were to strike the earth now.

Solar storms take place when the sun’s surface erupts and spews radiation or electrically charged particles toward Earth. The more frequent minor storms may cause some radio interference and create the Northern Lights spectacle known as the aurora borealis. But every few decades can see a huge solar storm that releases the energy of 1 billion hydrogen bombs.

Events of that magnitude took place in both 1921 and 1859, before the world had become reliant upon satellites and electronic devices in everyday life. A recent exercise held in Boulder, Colorado simulated a worst-case scenario based on that storm, and involved both space weather experts and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In the simulation, the solar storm first disabled most commercial satellites that transmit everything from phone conversations to TV, not to mention credit card transactions at the gas station pump. The next day, the storm created electric currents in power lines that destroyed most transformers around the world, and cut out electricity for much of the northern latitudes. There’s no good defense against such an event. All that scientists can do is hope to build a better warning system by monitoring the sun’s activity

A solar Storm on April 15 this year was largely ignored but something important occurred that day. This was the day Galaxy 15 went radio silent; it stopped responding to all commands from earth; this lead to the name “Zombiesat”.  The satellite is still working, which means that it could start to affect other satellites as it gets closer to them. An extremely strong signal was beamed in the hopes of turning it off, but it had no effect.  Now imagine if this were to occur on a larger scale and knock 50% of the satellites out.

In 1859, a geomagnetic storm sparked by a huge solar flare swept over the Earth. Telegraph wires shorted out and set houses on fire. A brilliant aurora was seen in Hawaii—so bright that “people could read newspapers by [its] red and green glow.” Scientists predict that in May 2013, the sun’s solar cycle will peak at about the same level as in 1859.

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years, we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity,” says Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division. “At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms.”  

 “We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Fisher told the Daily Telegraph. “It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world.” The earth has been battered by solar storms before, but never has civilization been so vulnerable, since it’s now so dependent upon both electrical and electronic infrastructure.

In pre-electronic and barely electrical 1859, a “perfect space storm” shorted out telegraph lines in the US and Europe, causing numerous fires. It also made the Northern Lights visible as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, according to NASA — contemporary accounts relate how a group of campers in the Rocky Mountains were awakened by an “auroral light, so bright that one could easily read common print. Some of the party insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast.”

In 1921, a solar storm induced ground currents that crippled the New York transit system. In 1989, another solar storm brought down the entire Quebec power grid due to those pesky ground currents, and plunged six million people into darkness on a cold, cold Canadian night.  “Strong auroral currents, which wreaked havoc with the telegraph networks during the [1859] event,” the report warns, “can disrupt and damage electric power grids and may contribute to the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines.

“Economic and societal costs attributable to impacts of geomagnetic storms could be of unprecedented levels,” the report concludes. The cost of hurricane Katrina, estimated to be between $81bn and $125bn, would be piddling when compared to the effect of a “future severe geomagnetic storm scenario,” which the report estimates could run as high as $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year. Depending on damage, the report contends, full recovery could take 4 to 10 years. Full story

The following excerpts were taken from www.spaceweather.com

During the early hours of August 1st, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded a complex global disturbance on the Earth-facing side of the sun. Most of the sun’s north-ern hemisphere was involved in the event, which included a long-duration C3-class solar flare, a “solar tsu-nami,” and a massive filament eruption. As a result of these blasts, a coronal mass ejection (CME) is heading toward Earth. High-latitude geomagnetic storms and auroras are possible when the cloud arrives a few days hence. August 1, 2010

The following solar Blast just missed the Earth

On Saturday, August 7th, magnetic fields around sunspot 1093 erupted. NASA spacecraft and many amateur astronomers photographed the blast, which pro-duced a strong M1-class solar flare and hurled a coronal mass ejection (CME) into space–apparently just miss-ing the sun-Earth line. The explosion also made whooshing sounds in the loudspeakers of some shortwave radios. August 8, 2010

A coronal mass ejection (CME) propelled toward Earth by a solar eruption on August 7th has yet to arrive. With each passing hour of no-impact, the odds of geomagnetic activity lessen. This CME is probably too slow-moving to deal a strong blow to Earth’s magnetic field. Even so, high-latitude sky watchers should remain alert for auroras through August 11th.  August 11, 2010

While these recent storms have not caused any real damage, they do clearly illustrate the growing instability on the surface of the sun and the potential threat these storms pose today for our technology driven world.  We have had several strong solar storms in the earlier part of this century and if storms of the same intensity had to strike now it would cause chaos, but if we had to experience a storm of the same magnitude that struck in 1859, the results would be 10 times worse.  This scenario fits perfectly with our expectation that the world at large is close to entering a difficult time frame that could last to 2014 and possibly beyond. .