Space

Dangerous solar super-storms may occur on average once every 25 years

Dangerous solar super-storms m...
An image showing an active region of the Sun, taken in July 2017 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
An image showing an active region of the Sun, taken in July 2017 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
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An image showing an active region of the Sun, taken in July 2017 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
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An image showing an active region of the Sun, taken in July 2017 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory

A solar super-storm capable of seriously disrupting modern day technology has erupted from our Sun on average once every 25 years, according to a newly-published study. The research drew on historic data collected from stations in the UK and Australia dating back 150 years.

If it were not for the nurturing, warming radiation from our Sun, life would never have emerged on Earth. Our planet is lucky, and, as far as we know, unique.

Astronomers have observed less-fortunate worlds that have been ravaged by the radiation pouring from energetic host stars. During intense bouts of activity, stellar bodies can strip orbiting worlds of their atmospheres, rendering their surfaces scorched and barren.

Thankfully, our Sun – a yellow dwarf that accounts for 99.8 percent of the mass of the entire solar system – is currently coasting through a relatively placid phase of its roughly 10 billion-year life cycle. However it still has the capacity to create chaos on Earth.

In the modern age, humanity is dependent on countless electronic systems without which we would be hopelessly lost. Every day we use electronic banking, travel on airplanes and communicate using satellite technology.

Solar storms emanating from our Sun have the capacity to seriously interfere with our technological infrastructure, including elements that rely on Global Position Systems (GPS).

Powerful storms are rare, and difficult to predict. The most powerful of these storms, which are referred to in the study as "super-storms," have the capacity to down GPS systems, block radio communications, disrupt satellites, put a halt to aviation, and damage power grids. In short, they could cause chaos on a massive scale.

Our Sun experiences 11-year patterns of activity that astronomers refer to as solar cycles. The Sun is currently at the minimum point in its current cycle, during which it is relatively inactive.

The newly-published study, which was conducted by scientists from the University of Warwick and the British Antarctic Survey, used magnetic field records collected by stations located in the UK and Australia.

Many studies relating to solar activity only look back to the beginning of the space age in 1957, and so only take into account the last five solar cycles. The magnetic field data used in the new study comes from the aa-index – a global geomagnetic activity index that stretches back 150 years, and contains information from the last 14 solar cycles.

The researchers analyzed the data and estimated that a severe storm had occurred in 42 of the 150 years for which they had data. A "great" super-storm – the type that would wreak the greatest havoc – was detected in six of the 150 years, or on average once every 25 years.

Earth was spared a potentially damaging solar storm back in 2012, when a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the surface of our star, but thankfully missed our planet.

“Our research shows that a super-storm can happen more often than we thought,” states Professor Richard Home, lead for space weather at the British Antarctic Survey. “Don’t be misled by the stats, it can happen any time, we simply don’t know when and right now we can’t predict when.”

The research has been published in the journal Geophysical Journal Letters.

Source: University of Warwick

7 comments
guzmanchinky
Every 25 years, so when is the next one, on average, supposed to occur?
Philip Argy
So a great super solar storm will wreak way more havoc than global warming. Maybe we should be paying more attention to building resistance to the former rather than the latter phenomenon!
RobWoods
Yes, I agree with Phillip, we should be putting more emphasis on protecting and screening electronics than wasting time and money on useless attempts to control unconfirmed global warming!
buzzclick
I also want to know when the next one might be coming, but here we go again. We have here more examples of people who're denying the climate change issues of our era. It's not just global warming people! It's pollution levels, the acidification and rising levels of the oceans, it's the loss of 60% of animal populations, the ever-increasing human footprint on the eco system, the insufficient proper rejuvenation of farmlands and all the excess fertilizer ending up in the rivers and oceans, it's the ability of man to kill himself 50 times over! It's not just the rising of global temperature, so get your heads out of your asses. But I get it. I know. I'm the nutcase who doesn't know what he's talking about. Hah!
Wolf0579
We will soon see an uptick in solar flare activity. What we need to protect the most is the grid. Transformers take a ridiculous amount of time to construct, like months to make one transformer, even WITH a functioning grid. They are the vulnerable part of the system. They can be easily blown by induced voltages in power lines resulting from extreme solar wind, coronal mass ejections that happen to be pointed towards the Earth, and large solar flares.
see3d
I agree with buzzclick. The result of a super storm might be a major disruption to our electronic infrastructure and require a lot of jobs for people trying to fix the damage. The result of runaway greenhouse warming is the disruption of life on the planet forever. Hmmm, I wonder where my priorities should be? I know, there is no reason we can not work on both!
Kpar
Another warning that our "benign" Sun isn't always so. The 1859 Carrington event demonstrated that we live in a dangerously unstable technological world- and then it was only some Western Union offices that were affected.

A major Class X solar flare directly striking Earth and our unprotected electrical grid has the potential to wipe out most of human civilization. Imagine the chaos if the grid was damaged to the point where it might take years to replace- millions, if not billions, would starve to death.

I agree we are spending too much time and money worrying about theoretical climate change, where the drivers are poorly understood in an essentially chaotic system, while we have direct evidence of a major threat to humanity THAT WILL DEFINITELY HAPPEN AGAIN.

The only question is when... and now we have a better idea.