Space

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

Massive solar storm would pose...
An M5.6-class flare observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on Jan. 12, 2015
An M5.6-class flare observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on Jan. 12, 2015
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An M5.6-class flare observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on Jan. 12, 2015
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An M5.6-class flare observed by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on Jan. 12, 2015

Across the globe, thescientific community and governmental bodies are preparing for thethreat posed by the potential of a massive geomagnetic solar stormstriking Earth. These space weather events have thecapacity to cripple vital technology-based infrastructures, and ofcausing a cascade that could lead to unforeseeable dangers.

Since the birth ofmodern technology, space weather has been responsible for large scaleblackouts, technical faults in deep space exploration missions, andsevere interference in flight-control systems for commercialaircraft.

One of the mostpowerful solar storms in history, known as the Carrington Event,occurred in 1859 and succeeded in disabling the global telegraphsystem. Whilst the Carrington Event was indeed impressive, humanityhas yet to be struck by a truly massive solar storm.

Numerous orbital andground-based telescopes, such as the Big Bear Solar Observatory,California, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, are tasked withobserving the Sun, and unravelling the mechanisms that create spaceweather.

The SDO is charged withmaintaining a near-constant vigil on our star, and acting as an earlywarning system for potentially hostile space weather. Alongsideproviding insights into solar mechanics, the observatory has allowedfor the creation of stunning time-lapse videos of our Sun, which workto convey the powerful stellar processes occurring on a daily basis.

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

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

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

Itis estimated that thestorms were roughly 10 – 100 times more powerful than any eventrecorded to date. A powerful solar storm such as this would wreakhavoc on a global scale. Damage to communication and GPS satelliteswould effectively cripple air travel and GPS navigation systems.

Householdand exterior lights would be knocked out, as well as telephonenetworks and computers, which would likely have their hard driveswiped. Our energy infrastructure would be knocked out of action, andintense bursts of electromagnetic radiation could erode water andsewage pipes. The cumulative effect of the space weather would in alllikelihood bring the world economy to a grinding halt.

Thedangers listed above are only a few of the threats that we cananticipate and exclude the potential environmental damage that such astorm could wreak on Earth's protective ozone layer. However expertsare warning that the hyper interconnected nature of modern society,and its reliance on technology will most likely result in a cascadeof unforeseeable consequences when elements of the technologicalstructure we rely on are disrupted.

Dueto the above factors, American governmental agencies including NASAand the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have designated thethreat of a powerful solar storm as a "low-probability but highimpact event."

In2013, the insurance company Lloyds of London issued a report layingout its estimates regarding the scope and cost of a large stormbattering Earth. By its calculations, between 20 to 40 millionpeople could be affected for a period of 1-2 years, depending on the availability of replacement transformers needed to restore electricsupplies. The company also estimated the cost of recovering from suchan event between US$600 billion to $2.6 trillion.

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

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

"The technologicaland biological impacts of severe space weather events are now firmlyin the federal government's sights," states Andrew Gerrard,director for the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research at the NewJersey Institute of Technology. "All things being equal, increasedresearch funding from the represented federal agencies will furtherbolster the incorporation of 'space weather' into our dailylives. Such development will enable the solar-terrestrial communityto, for the first time, see a solar storm, track its approach, andprepare accordingly."

Source:New Jersey Institute of Technology

4 comments
Sinter
I would be interested to know what affect it might have on CD's as I store my photographs on them as well as hard drives? Also is there any form of shielding available as I don't think the Radiation protecting Metal Based Foam recently developed and reported here will be hitting the market any time soon.
neutrino23
I find it difficult to imagine that hard drives would be wiped or that underground pipes would be damaged. That would take massive changes to the magnetic field far beyond that of the Carrington event. Not that it can't happen. If that were to happen a damaged hard drive might be the least of our problems.
bwklast1
The effect is magnetic so CDs would not be affected. Magnetic shielding wrap in soft iron foil and Faraday cage inside a metal conducting case would be your best bet.
DomainRider
Not only would a lot of delicate microelectronics (microprocessors, etc.) probably be irreparably damaged, but the main problem would be damage to power infrastructure, especially transformers. Without stocks of spare transformers, the electrical grid would be offline until more could be manufactured and installed, and the factories involved would only have locally generated power to do this. Manufacturing transformers is a heavy industry operation requiring large amounts of power; on-site generators would not cope. Even if control systems could be protected, crucial services (electricity, gas, water, etc.) would fail after a few weeks or less as fuel stores for generators became exhausted.
Not a great future to anticipate...