One of the largest solar storms ever observed for centuries hit the Earth in September 1859 on the eve of a solar cycle below average intensity. The associated sun destruction is so atypical that researchers still do not know how to classify it. The explosion sprayed Earth with a deluge of protons unpublished for half a millennium, accompanied by electric currents that burned telegraphs while aurora borealis invaded skies over Cuba and Hawaii.
In June 2011, officials gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC asked themselves the question:
What will happen if it were to happen again?
“A magnetic storm of this magnitude could put us KO,” says Lika Guhathakurta, a solar physics specialist from NASA. “Modern society relies on sophisticated systems such as smart power grids, GPS, and satellite communications, all of which are vulnerable to solar storms”.
Lika was present at the fifth annual forum of the space dedicated to the climate, the Space Weather Enterprise Forum (SWEF) with a hundred colleagues. The purpose of SWEF is to highlight climate space phenomena and their consequences for man to challenge policies and responsible for the disaster. The forum brought together elected U.S. Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), electrician operators, United Nations representatives, NASA, NOAA and many personalities from all domains.
During the year 2011, forecasters believe that the sun would begin a shorter than average cycle. In 1859 “Carrington Event” (named after astronomer Richard Carrington who described the solar destruction) showed that low cycles may be accompanied by strong magnetic storms.
In 1859, all that was feared was Telegraph unavailability for a day or two while tropical islands observers admired unusual phenomena in the sky.
But in modern times it would be otherwise. The cascading failures of power lines and intercontinental electrical transformers deprive Earth of electricity for weeks or months before engineers can repair the damage. Air and sea navigation would be deprived of GPS, satellites would be put out of service and banking and financial networks would stop working, with all the consequences we can imagine for commerce. In short, a nightmare scenario for the computer age.
According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, an exceptional solar event that happens every hundred years could have an equal economic impact of Hurricane “Katrina” Power 20!
As such, the astronomer Mike Hapgood, a researcher at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England warns world leaders in an article published in the journal Nature. According to him, solar storms which intensity is equivalent to those that have already occurred over the past 200 years could deprive whole areas of electricity for several months. The astronomer cites an American study estimated that a giant black-out could cost two trillion dollars just in the United States, due to repairs that require 4-10 years of work, not to mention the lack to win.
And this episode is little compared to a solar storm 20 times more powerful as the one that hit Earth in the year 774, according to cosmologist Adrian Melott of the University of Lawrence (Kansas – USA), and Brian Thomas, an astrophysicist at Washburn University of Topeka (Kansas – United States). At the time, the event was not catastrophic, given the lack of technology,
“but in our case, the victims would be counted in hundreds of millions and humanity would jump back 150 years…”, said Adrian Melott.
Fortunately, we have ways to mitigate the effects of a major solar storm through integrated protection and automatic voltage networks put out.
While policymakers gathered to recognize the risks, not far away, NASA researchers are actively trying to identify them:
“We are now able to follow the path of solar storms and their progress towards the Earth in 3D” says Michael Hesse, speaking forum and director of GSFC Space Weather Lab.
“This is the beginning of an operational warning system for climate disasters from space for the protection of electrical networks and high-tech infrastructure in case of intense solar activity”.
The model is made from data collected by a fleet of NASA satellites orbiting Earth. Laboratory analysts feed a database stored in data process super computers. A few hours after a major eruption, the computers produce a 3D movie showing the path of the storm, which planets and satellites will be affected and when. This kind of “interplanetary forecast” is unprecedented in the short history of space climatology.
“We live in a privileged time of space climate” notes Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab. “The recent development of scientific models based on physics allows us to anticipate these disasters.”
Some of our computer models are so sharp they can anticipate electric current generated by a solar flare’s entry into the earth’s surface. The stakes are high for electrical transformers and experimental project “Solar Shield” led by Dr. Pulkkinen’s mission is to identify the most threatened transformers by each solar flare.
“Putting off a particular high risk transformer just a few hours is enough to prevent outages that can last several weeks and dive a whole continent in darkness”, said Dr. Pulkkinen.
Another speaker at SWEF, Dr. John Allen from NASA Space Operations Mission Directorate, highlighted the risks taken by astronauts from the weather in space.
“If no one is immune to these risks, the astronauts are at the forefront and are exposed to four times higher than workers in the nuclear radiation levels on Earth”, he said. “This is a very high risk business”.
NASA set dosages carefully set each astronaut accumulated dosages during his career. Each takeoff, each spacewalk, each solar destruction is recorded. When an astronaut reaches levels close to the limit … He or she may be prohibited from leaving the space station! The correct space storms alerts can help control these exposures, such as reprogramming spacewalks when there is a risk of solar flare.
Dr. Allen also voted for a new type of weather report:
“The ‘RAS’ type messages. In addition to information on the periods during which it would refrain from going out, we would like to know those that are safe… There are new opportunities for space climate: prevent not only high-risk periods of eruption of a black spot but also periods without risk”.
The SWEF has a key educational role in creating the conditions for a good anticipation of solar storms. This is what Dr. Lika Guhathakurta and colleague Dan Baker of the University of Colorado underscored in an editorial in the New York Times dated from June 17:
“The space weather alerts is good … explain what they mean and how to respond is even better”.
Notes: The solar cycle of 1859 (solar cycle 10) was a small, typical cycle of solar cycles of the 19th century. These cycles were significantly lower than average solar cycles of the Space Age, which were intense cycles. The solar cycle 24, the one we are currently experiencing, has a number of black spots on the decline, similar to the cycle 10.