Storms from the Sun: Why We’re Not Ready

HA DO HUY LE

M8.7_Close-Up
Photo by NASA via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution. This image depicts an M8.7 class solar flare.

Imagine a United States where street lamps provide no refuge from the night’s darkness. Televisions, computers, and other electronic devices are useless. Satellites and GPS systems are going haywire. The government has spent over two trillion dollars for repairs—a recovery that will take four to ten years.1 This nightmare represents the aftermath of a head-on collision between Earth and a solar storm. And while this situation might seem incredible, it almost happened. On July 23, 2012, Earth barely escaped catastrophe when a powerful solar storm almost hit the planet. Instead, the storm cloud collided with the STEREO-A spacecraft, one used as a solar observatory and capable of handling space weather.2 But we are ill-equipped for another collision. And it’s time to become better prepared if we hope to keep the nightmare from becoming reality.

Solar storms are natural processes resulting from the constant fluctuation of magnetic fields on the sun.3 Sunspots, dark spots on the sun’s surface,4 constitute one of many signs of the sun’s continual activity.5 This activity, which increases over an eleven-year cycle, projects flares (bursts of magnetic energy)6 and coronal mass ejections (huge magnetic bubbles that produce solar winds)7 from the sun’s surface—the space weather equivalent to lightning storms and hurricanes, respectively.5 These powerful storms can travel to Earth and collide with its magnetic field with devastating effects.8 History demonstrates this. In 1859, English astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed the first recorded instance of a solar storm. Brilliant auroras could be seen all over the world, even at tropical regions far from the poles, and telegraph systems worldwide ceased functioning.9 More than a century later, another solar storm disturbed Earth’s magnetic field: on March 13, 1989, severe solar winds shut down seven static compensators controlling the power grid on the Le Grand network for Hydro-Quebec, the company that distributes electricity for all of Quebec.10 This resulted in a large blackout and damaged equipment.10 Quebec restored power within a day,10 but the events reveal the scope of damage that a solar storm could inflict on electrical systems.

In a society dominated by technology, this possibility is worrying. And as Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. (a company that has supported a number of NASA missions regarding the Sun’s physics) suggests, the probability that a solar storm as severe as the one recorded by Carrington would hit the Earth in the next ten years is twelve percent11—a low number, but not low enough for comfort. Things would likely be worse this time around than they were in 1859, too, because of our increased dependence on technology. Minor storms are already costly: the U.S. Department of Defense estimates that solar disruptions to government satellites cost about $100 million a year.5 Imagine that on a huge scale. Solar storms could degrade solar panels on satellites, causing losses of $70 billion, a year’s worth of revenue for all communication satellites.5

We are not giving solar storms the attention they deserve, and the more we prolong this, the more susceptible we are to devastation when a particularly strong storm hits Earth.”

Satellites have become more robust and satellite operators can receive preparatory warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center.5 We are making progress in developing preventative measures, but much more remains to be done. Most power grids lack the protection against geomagnetic disturbances that space satellites have.3 According to physicist Douglas Becker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, space weather today is where terrestrial weather was fifty years ago.3 And while NOAA inaugurated an advanced computer model, Enlil, to predict when a coronal mass ejection will hit, the forecast is imperfect: for a storm on March 8, 2012, it was forty-five minutes off and did not predict the storm’s destructive magnitude correctly.3 It’s true that we are more prepared now than we have been in the past, but we are still vulnerable.

We need to create cutting-edge technology to accurately sense the magnitude of an incoming solar storm, so we can shut off power lines in advance. And to do this, we need greater popular interest. Certainly, since 2012, concern about solar storms has increased. Nevertheless, as Steve Trachton of the Washington Post notes, “the results of this intensive activity thus far have amounted to not much more than stacks of reports”.12 We are not giving solar storms the attention they deserve, and the more we prolong this, the more susceptible we are to devastation when a particularly strong storm hits Earth. If we are to advance the scientific projects of the future, we must first make sure that this future can exist.

Works Cited:

  1. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report. Washington, D.C.: National Academies, 2008. Print.
  2. Philips, Tony. “Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012.” NASA Science: Science News. NASA, 23 July 2014. Web. 26 December 2014.
  3. Ferris, Timothy. “Sun Struck. The space weather forecast for the next few years: solar storms, with a chance of catastrophic blackouts on Earth. Are we prepared?” National Geographic: 2012 June.
  4. Trachton, Steve. “Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know It?” Capital Weather Gang. The Washington Post, 6 April 2009. Web. 26 December 2014.
  5. Odenwald, Sten F. & James L. Green. “Bracing for a solar superstorm.” Scientific American, 299: 80-87, 2008 August.
  6. “What is a solar flare?” Space Environment. Northwestern University. Web. 13 January 2015.
  7. “Coronal Mass Ejections.” Solar Physics, Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA. Web. 13 January 2015.
  8. Odenwald, Sten F. “What are solar storms and how do they affect the Earth?” Ask the Space Scientist. NASA. Web. 26 December 2014.
  9. Bell, Trudy E. & Tony Phillips. “A Super Solar Flare.” NASA Science: Science News. NASA, 6 May 2008. Web. 26 December 2014.
  10. North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). March 13, 1989 Geomagnetic Disturbance. Washington, D.C. Print.
  11. Riley, Pete. “On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events.” Space Weather, 10(2), 23 February 2012. Web. 5 January 2015.
  12. Trachton, Steve. “Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather?” Capital Weather Gang. The Washington Post, 11 July 2012. Web. 26 December 2014.

 Ha Le is a Brevia staff writer.  She can be reached at hadohuyle@college.harvard.edu.