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
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

    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
    X
    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.

    You May Like

    US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

    Congressional inaction threatens funding for effort which began in 2008 and has allowed more than 20,000 interpreters, their family members to immigrate to US

    Brexit's Impact on Russia Stirs Concern

    Some analysts see Brexit aiding Putin's plans to destabilize European politics; others note that an economically unstable Europe is not in Moscow's interests

    US to Train Cambodian Government on Combating Cybercrime

    Concerns raised over drafting of law, as critics fear cybercrime regulations could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent

    This forum has been closed.
    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)

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roari
    X
    June 28, 2016 10:33 AM
    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora