Solar Storm

Image courtesy of NASA

Earth’s Biggest Risk: Solar Storms
| published July 30, 2015 |

By Keith H. RobertsThursday Review contributor

The BBC and Fox News are reporting that papers released by the British Department of Business, Innovations & Skills suggests that the biggest threat to organized modern society is not from melting polar ice caps or earthquakes or drought or asteroid impacts, but instead from large solar storms or massive flares.

The newly released study says that an immense solar storm or large enough flare—scientifically known as a mass coronal ejection—has the potential to seriously disrupt electronics, the electrical grid, telecommunications and computer systems worldwide. Worse, such an event would give the people of planet Earth about 12 hours to prepare. A large enough storm or flare can eject plasma in enormous quantities, which—if it detaches from the sun’s gravity—would send an explosion of x-rays and high energy particles hurtling toward the Earth.

The resulting wave of particles would trigger an “electronic pulse,” essentially disabling the power and electronic systems which guide airplanes, help boats navigate, monitor train and rail speeds, enable telecommunications and cell phones, and power television and internet services. Scientists are divided on the question of how quickly those systems would return to normal—minutes, hours, days, or weeks—and therefore worry that society, especially in urban areas, may face serious disruptions.

The British report cites the famous Carrington Event of 1859, when a massive coronal ejection sent a heavy wave of x-rays and high energy particles toward the Earth. According to the History Channel, the Carrington Event—named for astronomer Richard Carrington, who first observed the solar event through his telescope at his home near London—occurred early on the morning of September 1, 1859. By chance, Carrington happened to be watching that morning as the sun spewed forth an immense arc of fireballs from the surface, larger flares than had ever been observed in centuries. The flares of energy extended from the sun for millions of miles, and after a few minutes eventually burst free of the sun’s powerful gravity.

Twelve hours later, waves of unseen energy and x-rays washed over the Earth, causing telegraph machines to spark and short circuit and even injuring some telegraph operators with violent jolts of energy. Legend holds that some telegraph machines in some countries sparked so violently that it set piles of nearby papers ablaze and burned leather keypads and arm rests. Reports of such incidents came from all over the world, this in an age when the telegraph was essentially the most sophisticated form of communication in a time before telephones, cable, television or radio. More striking were the days and weeks of unusually lit night skies and strange auroras, some so bright that it turned night skies into virtual daylight, and gave some daytime skies a strange multi-colored hue.

In fact, the people of Earth had just experienced the first ever electronic pulse, and the minor damage it inflicted on the telegraph lines and primitive switchboards is a foretaste of the disruptions we might face if another mass ejection like the 1859 event were to occur today.

The new British Report suggests that countries should have a plan ready well in advance of future solar super storms. Since modern astronomy lends itself to constant monitoring of the skies, and thanks to the sophisticated satellite telescope technology and scientific tools places in orbit by NASA and scores of other countries, humanity would have a safe window of about 11 to 12 hours to prepare for such an event. But the British report warns that cities and heavily populated areas would still be a great risk under such circumstances, as computer systems collapse, communications networks fail, and emergency services face logistical challenges on the same par with what they would face immediately after a hurricane, typhoon or earthquake.

The report, while acknowledging that there is less than a one percent chance of such a coronal mass ejection occurring in any given year, also says that all countries should begin to develop back-up systems for power and emergency communications—technologies designed to recover quickly after an electronic pulse—and that cities should have a fully operational emergency plan for handling the stress of so many system failures in such a short period of time.

Supporters of the conclusions drawn in the British report point out that in the case of a coronal mass ejection, governments would at least have a specific and highly reliable period of warning—11 to 12 hours of time for preparation—whereas slow moving hurricanes and typhoons, and fast-moving tornadoes can sometimes change course. Earthquakes, on the other hand, generally arrive with almost no warning. In California, for example, the state hopes to have technology in place soon which will give Pacific Coast residents perhaps as much as 15-to-20 seconds of warning prior to an earthquake, enough time, it is hoped, to find a safe place within a home, apartment or office building. Similar warning systems—using advanced and highly reliable computer data—could accurately predict the arrival of an earthquake-induced tsunami, enabling thousands of coastal and low-lying residents to quickly move toward higher ground.

Still, there are skeptics who suggest that the implications of the British government’s report are greatly overstated. The chances of such a solar event are much lower than the relative chances of someone living along Gulf Coast and East Coast areas of the U.S., in the Caribbean basin, or along the eastern areas of the Philippines being impacted by a hurricane or typhoon. Likewise, a recent ten-year increase in tornado activity in the central United States makes it far more likely that someone living in Missouri or Tennessee will be affected directly by a tornado than by a mass coronal ejection.

But the British government report stresses that awareness of the risk is low, and that vulnerable segments of government and infrastructure should have a plan ready, just in case.

Solar flares and solar storms are, in fact, routine, and even have periods of predictable seasonal activity. Most solar activity causes minor disruptions to television broadcast service, cable and satellite transmissions, and cell phone service. In early September 2014 a series of unusually large solar flares triggered a wave of high energy particles impacted Earth and caused minor disruptions to radio transmissions, cell phone services, and some landline phone services.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Do NOT Stare at the Sun, Unless…; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; July 8, 2015.