NASA is predicting that the coming solar maximum could produce very energetic solar flares and coronal mass ejecta. These events have the potential to cause significant damage to our power grid as well as our orbiting satellites. But how do we know what to expect?
Previous Solar Storms
Should a solar storm erupt in the coming years, it will release a massive amount of high energy charged particles streaming toward Earth. Such a storm occurred in 1859.
Shortly after the Sun reached solar maximum in 1859, the Sun experienced a significant increase in sun spot activity as well as a sequence of intense solar flares. The largest solar flare on record during the maximum was then observed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. The result of the flare was a coronal mass ejection that sent charged particles streaming toward Earth, reaching the atmosphere only 18 hours after the ejection. This is startlingly quick given that the trip normally takes several days.
Once the particles reach the Earth they caused a series of phenomena to occur, the likes of which the Earth has not experienced since. First of all, charged particles are usually captured by the Earth’s magnetic field, and primarily get funneled to the poles. There, they interact with the Earth’s atmosphere creating brilliant colors known as aurorae.
In this case, however, the flux of particles was so high that the magnetic field could not shield the Earth from them all. So instead of aurorae only being created near the poles, they came into existence throughout the Earth. Reports of aurorae were common over the Caribbean, as well as the central United States. At one point the glow in the Rocky Mountains was such that it awoke the sleeping miners, causing them to begin getting prepared for the day, believing that it was in fact dawn.
Another, and perhaps more significant, problem was that the charged particle flux began to reek havoc on electronic systems. Specifically, failure of telegraph systems world wide were reported.
If This Has Happened Before, Then What’s the Big Deal?
Knowing that such an event has happened in our worlds history would surely lead the world’s leaders to prepare for another such event, right? With all of today’s advanced technology we must be prepared.
Well, no. In fact a report commissioned by the office of the President showed that in fact such a storm would not only cause problems for electronic devices, but could potentially bring down the entire power grid. And not just here, but around the world. The kind of damage that would be caused could take months or, more likely, years to repair.
Could you imagine? No electricity for years? No phones, no computers, no internet? That is the possibility that we are facing. However, this would take a massive storm like the one in 1859 to even approach such cataclysmic events, but it is something that we need to be aware of.
What Are We Doing To Protect Ourselves From These Events?
In response to the report, scientists from around the world have been working to make our power grid more robust, and are seeking to find ways to protect our satellite systems. However, this work is slow going and Congress needs to be urged to make changes now.
Also, development of other technologies could help protect electronic devices that we use every day. But again, this requires investments by manufacturers that, so far, have been unwilling to make such a commitment.
Another precaution being taken by the government is to implement early warning systems. If we see such a coronal mass ejection, we may only have 18 hours or less before the particle flux reaches Earth. Therefore closely monitoring the Sun’s activity, and then being able to act on information in a short time is vital.
Monitoring the Sun is relatively easy, in fact NASA already does a thorough job of doing that. However, getting the word out to prepare for a coming solar storm is not so simple. So that is one key element that will need to be worked out.
With proper preparation the hope is that such an event will come and go with as little interruption as possible. Of course there will probably be some inconvenience due to such a storm, perhaps significant ones of preparations are put off too long. But ultimately, we should be able to go on normally with our daily lives.