News / Science & Technology

Major Solar Storm Could Be Heading for Earth

In a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) solar material streaks out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. (NOAA)
In a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) solar material streaks out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. (NOAA)
Rosanne Skirble
With the sun nearing the peak of its 11-year cycle, scientists say a powerful solar storm may be headed our way, which could shut down electricity supply networks and disorient GPS and satellite systems.

The worst known geomagnetic solar storm hit Earth in 1859, observed and sketched by astronomer Richard Carrington. The Carrington event upset global telegraph communications. Surprised operators watched sparks fly from telegraph lines and set telegraph paper on fire. 

While not nearly as powerful, other storms in history have cut power, knocked out telephone service, short-circuited satellites and caused radio blackouts.  

Major solar storm overdue

The Earth is overdue for another Carrington-like storm, according to a new report released by Lloyd’s of London, the world oldest insurance market. 

Major Solar Storm Could Be Heading for Earth
Major Solar Storm Could Be Heading for Earthi
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Co-author Neil Smith says it could be even more devastating, given the worldwide dependence on electric power supply grids. 

“We are estimating that 20-40 million people might be without power from anywhere up to one, even two years," he said. "That has to do with the critical issue of replacement transformers. That number of people without power could result in an economic cost somewhere between $0.6 trillion to $2.6 trillion.”

  • Solar flares are intense, short-lived releases of energy. (Photo: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center)
  • In a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) solar material streaks out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. They are sometimes associated with flares, but usually occur independently. (Photo: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center)
  • The sun from maximum to minimum. (Photo: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center)
  • A coronal hole on the sun, seen here in dark blue, is an area of the sun's atmosphere, the corona, where the magnetic field opens up and the material flows quickly out. (Photo: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center)
  • The sun erupting with a CME traveling at over 900 miles per second. (Photo: ESA & NASA/SOHO)
  • Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on Sept. 1, 1859. (Credit: NASA/Royal Astronomical Society)
  • GOES or Geosynchronous Orbit Satellite solar X-ray image from July 19, 2013. GOES continuously monitors the Earth’s surface. (Photo: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center)
  • Astronauts, pilots and airline personnel are at risk from solar radiation depending on how much time they are in space and over Polar Regions. (Photo: NASA)
  • Solar storms can seriously damage power grid transformers. (Credit: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center)
  • Auroras over Alaska. (Photo: Daryl Pederson)
  • Night lights from the International Space Station show cities of Ireland and the United Kingdom in the foreground contrasted by the bright sunrise in the background. The greens and purples of the Aurora Borealis are seen along the rest of the horizon.
  • Loops, flares and eruptions on particularly active day on the sun. (Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

The focus of the report is North America.  Smith says the continent’s geologic features and aging infrastructure put it at high risk for bad solar weather. The power grid, satellites, aircraft communications, astronauts and oil pipelines are particularly vulnerable. “If there was a big solar flare, it could of course knock out a whole lot of transformers.”

Improved computer models

Michael Wiltberger, a scientist at the High Altitude Observatory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, builds models to track the sun cycle, ultimately to better predict solar weather.

He observes coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that race through the solar system at speeds of three million to five million kilometers per hour. They reach Earth in less than two days.  Wiltberger sees them, at the speed of light, less than eight minutes after an eruption on the sun.

Major Solar Storm Could Be Heading for Earthi
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July 22, 2013 8:08 PM
The animation shows a computer model of the Earth's magnetic field impacted by solar storms and wind. Michael Wilberger, Michael Wiltberger, a scientist at the High Altitude Observatory of the National Center for Climate Research in Boulder, Colorado narrates.

That gives space weather forecasters some lead time, but Wiltberger says predicting precisely when and where a storm will hit is much more complex.

“The real challenge that we have, that we are struggling with and trying to build into our numerical models, is to understand what the magnetic field is going to be inside this hot gas that is coming out," he said, "because it’s that magnetic field that is the key that unlocks the entry of energy and mass into the Earth’s, near-Earth’s region.”

Wiltberger says the models could provide a framework to monitor a storm and improve predictions. He hopes that system will be operational within five years.  

Greater international cooperation needed

In the meantime, Neil Smith of Lloyd’s of London is calling for greater cooperation to mitigate the impact before the next big storm comes on the horizon.

“We are just raising awareness of the issue, because step one is to get different parties aware that this is a potential issue," he said. "And then we need to work with governments and the utility industry to tackle it. It’s not something that any one party could actually solve on their own.”

Smith adds that such work is critically important, to avoid what could become large-scale economic and societal chaos.

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Evan Ng from: British Columbia
July 22, 2013 4:23 PM
Damage to power systems during a solar magnetic storm occurs by causing the Earth's magnetic field to oscillate. The oscillation of the Earth's field may increase or decrease depending on the strength of the solar magnetic fields but it will not oscillate faster or slower in response to the induced energy.

The wavelength of the induced Earth magnetic field oscillations depends on the oscillation frequency which is the time it takes to oscillate. That wavelength remains pretty much the same regardless of the energy. It's like a swinging pendulum, how much it swings does not change the rate at which it swings.

That frequency produces varying strength fields that have very long wavelengths only capable of being picked up by very long power transmission lines. Short networks of a few hundred miles or less cannot pick up enough energy to be severely damaged regardless of the strength of the fields. When the large and long networks are caused to fail damage may occur to them but the short networks will be simply disconnected from the main power sources as they fail.

The claim that the power could be off for years is ridiculous. That isn't how the failures would occur. Only the major systems would be badly affected and they can be repaired quickly. There would not be many thousands of burnt out transformers all requiring replacement at once. It doesn't happen that way.

While we should be prepared for serious power failures it is not responsible to scare people with nonsense.

Incidentally, the old telegraph systems were much more sensitive to electromagnetic fields than current power systems. They were very long unbalanced DC wires connected with no breaks, no insulation and no separate grounding protection. They were frequently damaged by simple lightning strikes.

(astronomer and electronics/power expert)

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