A stream of very charged particles from the sun is headed straight towards Earth, threatening to plunge cities close to the planet into darkness and bring the global economic climate screeching to a halt.
This isn’t the premise of the newest doomsday thriller. Substantial solar storms have happened before — and another one is probably to happen quickly, according to Mike Hapgood, a space weather scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England.
Significantly of the planet’s electronic equipment, as well as orbiting satellites, have been constructed to withstand these periodic geomagnetic storms. But the planet is still not ready for a really damaging solar storm, Hapgood argues in a recent commentary published in the journal Nature.
Hapgood talked with The Times about the potential results of such a storm and how the planet should prepare for it.
What exactly is a solar storm?
I find that’s tough to answer. The phrase “solar storm” has crept into our usage, but nobody has defined what it means. Whether a “solar storm” is occurring on the sun or is referring to the effect on the Earth depends on who’s speaking.
I prefer “space weather,” due to the fact it focuses our attention on the phenomena in space that travel from the sun to the Earth. People typically talk about solar flares and solar storms in the identical breath. What is the difference?
Solar flares generally emit X-rays — we also get radio waves from these items, and white light in the brightest of flares. They all travel at the very same speed as light, so it requires eight minutes to arrive. There are some effects from flares, such as radio interference from the radio bursts.
But that is a rather modest-beer thing. The big thing is the geomagnetic storms [on Earth] that impact the power grid, and that is caused by the coronal mass ejections [from the sun].
Coronal mass ejections are brought on when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space. Assume of it like a hurricane — is it headed toward us or not headed towards us? If we’re fortunate, it misses us.
How are solar flares and coronal mass ejections associated?
There’s an association between flares and coronal mass ejections, but it’s a romantic relationship we don’t quite understand scientifically. Occasionally the CME launches before the flare takes place, and vice versa.
What takes place when these particles attain Earth?
There can be a complete variety of effects. The classic one every person estimates is the effect on the power grid. A massive geomagnetic storm can in essence put extra electrical currents into the grid. If it gets poor sufficient, you can have a comprehensive failure of the power grid — it occurred in Quebec back in 1989. If you have got that, then you’ve just got to get it back on yet again. But you could also damage the transformers, which would make it a lot harder to get the electrical power back.
How else could men and women be affected?
You get large disturbances in the Earth’s upper environment — what we contact the ionosphere — and that could be very disruptive to things like GPS [the network of international positioning system satellites]. Given the extent we use GPS in every day life [like for cellphone networks, shipping security and financial transaction records], that is a massive issue.
The storms can also disrupt communications on transoceanic flights. At times when that takes place, they will either divert or cancel flights. So that would be the like the disruption we had in Europe from the volcano two years ago, where they had to close down airspace for security reasons.
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Humanity needs to be much better prepared for massive solar storms, which can wreak havoc on our technology-dependent society, a prominent researcher warns. Powerful blasts from the sun have triggered intense geomagnetic storms on Earth before, and they’ll do so again. But at the moment our ability to predict these events and guard against their…