Catastrophic solar superstorm is overdue to hit Earth, scientist says

Andrew Fazekas

On August 31, 2012 a long filament of solar material that had been hovering in the sun's atmosphere, the corona, erupted out into space at 4:36 p.m. EDT. The coronal mass ejection, or CME, traveled at over 900 miles per second. The CME did not travel directly toward Earth, but did connect with Earth's magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, causing aurora to appear on the night of Monday, September 3.

The image above includes an image of Earth to show the size of the CME compared to the size of Earth.

When it comes to a violent solar storm slamming into Earth - it’s not a question of if but when, warns a new study published this month in the Physics World journal.

What makes it even more worrisome is that the latest research indicates that we may be overdue for a devastating blow from the sun.

Just two years ago, on July 23, 2012, we had a near miss from two giant clouds of charged particles that the sun had belched out in our direction. Estimates are that if these storms would have hit Earth, it would have been the most powerful solar event in 150 years. Fortunately for us, it had crossed our planet’s orbit a week too late and we were out of harm’s way.

If these huge bubbles of plasma and magnetic fields, called Coronal Mass Ejections, are large enough, they can actually rip apart Earth’s protective magnetic field. When that happens, waves of electrical surges would blast through transmission lines, frying them and setting off widespread blackouts.

The largest solar storm on record is the Carrington Event in 1859. That’s when the sun unleashed a monster storm that engulfed the Earth, releasing energy equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. It’s damaging effects were minimal since we only had telegraph wires at the time.

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While this magnitude of solar event has not been seen since, studies of neighbouring stars in the Milky Way using NASA’s Kepler exoplanet hunter telescope have shown that Sun-like stars have the capability of generating super-storms thousand times more powerful than the Carrington Event.

Strong solar storms are nothing new. They have been firing off the surface of the Sun throughout human history, however they never held the potential to be so destructive to civilization as much as they do today. In just the last century our society has rapidly become technologically dependant and addicted — a drastic change that has meant we rely completely on electronics and space satellites for daily business.

“If we were to lose these infrastructures tomorrow, what would happen? It's a scary thought, but the threat is very real,” explained the new study's author, Ashey Dale, a solar scientist from the University of Bristol in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

All of us are plugged in now with smartphones, appliances, and the internet. While these devices are not at risk, the network that they are plugged into is vulnerable, says Dale, who is a member of SolarMax, an international task force that identifies risks from solar storms and studies ways to mitigate their effects.

With the potential for entire power grids to go down for a month or more, our mobile devices would run out of electrical juice quickly without the ability to recharge. And even while they would survive the initial solar blast, there would be no internet to connect to.

“Not only would phones not have their 4G, but telecom base stations would likely be damaged — so there'd be little chance of connecting phone-calls,” added Dale. “With the satellites for smart TVs likely damaged beyond repair, it would takes years to rebuild that infrastructure, if ever.”

No doubt there would definitely be a whole slew of technological disasters right here on the ground to keep us busy, but the most costly damage would likely occur in space.

“With about 1,000 operational satellites in orbit, each costing on average about $100 million, it could take on the order of a decade to recover the space infrastructure and the numerous associated applications down here,” Dale warned.

“I'm not just talking about satellite TV and the GPS in your car, but the hundreds of other applications relating to transportation, logistics, finances, agriculture, defence, weather forecasting, financial and corporate services, governance and health care.”

At this point, no nation or industry is ready for such a cosmic emergency. Both North America and Europe are particularly vulnerable. Meanwhile countries like China and India, with large power infrastructures in more southern latitudes might be spared the worst from a solar superstorm.

“A major solar event certainly has the potential to radically change the geopolitical map,” Dale added.

How far are we from the next solar super storm? Pete Riley, a senior heliophysics scientist at NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, names a sobering figure: there is at 12 per cent chance it will happen within the next decade.

Someone in their 20s today will have a 50/50 chance of experiencing a solar super storm, provided they live into their 90s, Dale adds.

Heads or tails?

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