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Space weather: sunny with a chance of destruction

26 June 2019 7:13 PM
Digital technology

Solar activity could result in a rare and improbable event which could send civilisation back to the dark ages.

You may have never heard of a Carrington event, but by the end of this, you will be both amazed and horrified at what it could mean for humans.

It refers to a type of solar activity and the most severe level of it. You could compare it to an earthquake that registers eight on the Richter scale or a category five hurricane; both very intense level events that guarantee widespread damage and possibly human casualties.

A Carrington event is just as severe but may affect a much greater area. Before you can appreciate the damage you need to understand some elements of solar activity.

The sun is a giant nuclear fusion reaction converting an enormous volume of hydrogen gas to helium and releasing an incredible amount of energy as it does so. The sun has been doing this for billions of years.

The reaction creates the life-giving light and radiation that has allowed Earth to sustain life, but it also radiates supercharged plasma particles known as the solar wind. The Earth is typically protected from the harmful effects of these particles by the magnetic field created in the Earth’s molten core. The field runs through the poles and deflects the particles around the Earth. When there are more than usual volumes of particles they follow the field lines and are able to reach the upper atmosphere where they cause the nitrogen and oxygen in the air to glow. This is the aurora that can be seen around the poles during the winter months as the solar particles slam into the magnetic field.

The solar wind radiates in all directions and so we are constantly subjected to it. It is a danger to satellites and humans that orbit the Earth in the International Space Station.

Solar Flares

Despite the sun being billions of years old it too has a season of sorts with varying levels of solar activity that peaks in an 11-year cycle. Solar flares are formed in areas of the sun that differs from the surrounding areas or the lower areas, they can be very powerful and typically radiate from a part of the sun and so appear to create a high energy column consisting of radio wave emissions and high energy particles. If they are directed towards they Earth we can detect the radio emissions soon after the detect brightness on the sun’s surface (it takes about 8 minutes for light to travel the approximate 150 million kilometres to us).

Many hours or even days later the high energy particles arrive and create even more intense aurora and can be seen at lower latitudes from the poles.

_An image captured from a solar flare and coronal mass ejection in August 2012. For size, the Earth could pass through the arc created by the eruption._

Coronal Mass Ejections

Then there is a coronal mass ejection (CME), the volume of matter ejected varies but if it is directed towards the earth its arrival creates a geomagnetic storm significantly altering the shape of the magnetic field and risks damaging or destroying electrical equipment exposed by the deformed protective magnetic force.

The most significant recorded event of this nature to reach Earth occurred over a few days in September 1859. The initial solar flares were noted by the astronomer after whom the event is named. Not only did it consist of a very large solar flare, but it was also followed by the most powerful recorded coronal mass ejection to be directed at the Earth. There were no satellites, no power grids, electric locomotives, combustion engine vehicles, electrical appliances or communications devices. There was the early network for the telegraph systems that connected Europe and North America. For most humans, it was a stunning sight to behold with huge aurora that could be seen over most of the globe. In some areas, locals thought it was morning the sky was so bright.

The telegraph system was not so lucky. The electrical charges caused the wires to arc and shock the operators, even when the power was turned off and disconnected. Some stations could send messages using the available electricity in the air. Some lines and poles caught fire.

The effect lasted for a few days, then passed. While reported on widely, it did not affect society too much at the time.

Solar cycles continued, the sun created flares and CMEs. Some were powerful; occasionally they were directed at Earth or passed close by. All the while subsequent industrial revolutions added to our dependence on electricity and the growing web of networks and devices that used them.

Could it happen again?

In 1989 a solar storm caused a surge in Canada’s power transmission grid causing it to trip. It affected millions and took hours to recover, while many satellites in polar orbits went offline.

In 2000 a solar flare of sufficient power was able to create aurora that was visible from South Africa. Astronomers in Sutherland suspended their usual observations because the sky was too bright.

But our closest brush with an electrical Armageddon was in 2012 when a storm as powerful as the Carrington event was detected and would have caused significant damage were it not that the path the storm followed was just a few days past our orbit, Earth had dodged a bullet but felt it brush past as it did.

The science community has been monitoring the solar cycles since the 1750s and watching for and measuring solar flares and CMEs. We still rely mostly on the Earth’s magnetic field, but satellites that orbit at it limits have been modified to mitigate the risk.

The Earth is constantly struck by the solar activity, although the hope is that we don’t get a direct hit from a Carrington level storm. It is unlikely but remains a risk. A study to determine how much damage a Carrington event level storm would do to just the United States determined from half a trillion dollars to over 2.5 trillion dollars. It was undertaken in 2013 after insurers and power utilities breathed a massive sigh of relief.

There are plans should the big one come our way. For the man in the street, the pretty effects will not last long as attempts to capture the sight result in phones not working properly if not simply being destroyed. The power will trip, TV and radio broadcasts will cease, emergency radio will stop working. A warning message if one can be broadcast quickly enough would call for everything to be unplugged and switched off. Should we be able to heed the call, a few days of staying put and talking only to neighbours while watching the Earth weather the storm should do the trick. This would be the unreasonably optimistic view. You can imagine just how disruptive it will actually be.

Once the worst was over, power plants would come back online. Announcements to turn on radios and TVs will begin to patch together the extent of the damage and how well we managed to avoid the worst of it. A massive inconvenience, but preferable to the alternative of water pumps, power transformers, home power batteries, vehicles, communication towers, appliances and possibly whole office blocks wiring being destroyed.

Space agencies have long monitored solar activity as a space weather report to plan the protection and deployment of satellites and space probes. You can get weekly reports on Youtube for those who would like to stay informed.

The sun provides the means to sustain all life on Earth. It directly drives the economies of agriculture and is the most significant influence on global weather. Usually, it is all in balance, but it is possible that one year - maybe hundreds of years from now or merely a few years away - could see us face the single largest and fast acting risk to our current global economy.

Let’s not panic, but prepare for it just in case.

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26 June 2019 7:13 PM
Digital technology

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