Massive solar storm would pose considerable dangers – are we ready?

An M5.6-class flare observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on Jan. 12, 2015(Credit: NASA/SDO)

Across the globe, the scientific community and governmental bodies are preparing for the threat posed by the potential of a massive geomagnetic solar storm striking Earth. These space weather events have the capacity to cripple vital technology-based infrastructures, and of causing a cascade that could lead to unforeseeable dangers.

Since the birth of modern technology, space weather has been responsible for large scale blackouts, technical faults in deep space exploration missions, and severe interference in flight-control systems for commercial aircraft.

One of the most powerful solar storms in history, known as the Carrington Event, occurred in 1859 and succeeded in disabling the global telegraph system. Whilst the Carrington Event was indeed impressive, humanity has yet to be struck by a truly massive solar storm.

Numerous orbital and ground-based telescopes, such as the Big Bear Solar Observatory, California, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, are tasked with observing the Sun, and unravelling the mechanisms that create space weather.

The SDO is charged with maintaining a near-constant vigil on our star, and acting as an early warning system for potentially hostile space weather. Alongside providing insights into solar mechanics, the observatory has allowed for the creation of stunning time-lapse videos of our Sun, which work to convey the powerful stellar processes occurring on a daily basis.

While we are bolstering our early warning capabilities, the fact remains that, as it stands, we are alarmingly unprepared for the onslaught of a hugely powerful solar storm. A team of astronomers recently discovered that our Sun is indeed capable of producing such an event.

Known as superflares, the powerful solar storms have been observed taking place on numerous stars throughout the cosmos. It had previously been thought that our Sun's magnetic field was simply too weak to manifest a stellar event of this magnitude.

However, a recent study that surveyed the magnetic fields of roughly 100,000 stars appears to have proven this initial assumption incorrect by revealing that roughly 10 percent of the stars exhibiting super flares hosted a magnetic field equal to, or weaker than that of the Sun. Furthermore, based an analysis of tree-rings samples, it is thought that Earth may have endured minor superflare events in the ancient past.

It is estimated that the storms were roughly 10 – 100 times more powerful than any event recorded to date. A powerful solar storm such as this would wreak havoc on a global scale. Damage to communication and GPS satellites would effectively cripple air travel and GPS navigation systems.

Household and exterior lights would be knocked out, as well as telephone networks and computers, which would likely have their hard drives wiped. Our energy infrastructure would be knocked out of action, and intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation could erode water and sewage pipes. The cumulative effect of the space weather would in all likelihood bring the world economy to a grinding halt.

The dangers listed above are only a few of the threats that we can anticipate and exclude the potential environmental damage that such a storm could wreak on Earth's protective ozone layer. However experts are warning that the hyper interconnected nature of modern society, and its reliance on technology will most likely result in a cascade of unforeseeable consequences when elements of the technological structure we rely on are disrupted.

Due to the above factors, American governmental agencies including NASA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have designated the threat of a powerful solar storm as a "low-probability but high impact event."

In 2013, the insurance company Lloyds of London issued a report laying out its estimates regarding the scope and cost of a large storm battering Earth. By its calculations, between 20 to 40 million people could be affected for a period of 1-2 years, depending on the availability of replacement transformers needed to restore electric supplies. The company also estimated the cost of recovering from such an event between US$600 billion to $2.6 trillion.

The US military is preparing for such an event by increasing its satellite-based space weather monitoring capabilities in the hope of safeguarding assets such as drones, which would be lost if the link between pilot and vehicle were to be severed.

FEMA recently added space weather as a key factor in its daily operations briefings, and hope to develop a thunderstorm-like scale for predicting the magnitude of solar storms. In recent years, a number of symposiums and conferences have been chaired highlighting the threat posed by space weather, and calling for further research in the field aimed at the development of practical technologies that could safeguard vital systems.

"The technological and biological impacts of severe space weather events are now firmly in the federal government's sights," states Andrew Gerrard, director for the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "All things being equal, increased research funding from the represented federal agencies will further bolster the incorporation of 'space weather' into our daily lives. Such development will enable the solar-terrestrial community to, for the first time, see a solar storm, track its approach, and prepare accordingly."

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