Anticipating a Temper Tantrum from the Sun in 2013

In late January and again in the second week of March, the sun lashed out in a bit of a temper tantrum, on both occasions sending out a powerful interplanetary coronal mass ejection whose full effects reached Earth in a few days. We got lucky: Nothing much happened, and the resulting space weather storm didn’t pack as big a punch as expected.

This won’t always be the case.

A coronal mass ejection (CME) may sound like a side effect of drinking too much Mexican beer, but to scientists it’s about space weather, or more specifically, the sun’s weather. An interplanetary CME (ICME) is basically the shock wave and fall-out caused by a mass of the sun’s energetic particles being violently ejected from the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, at about 2 million miles per hour. While they can flare out in any direction, it’s the ICMEs that are hurled toward Earth that are the problem. While Earth’s magnetosphere – a kind of magnetic “force field” that surrounds the planet – spares us from most of the health-damaging effects of CMEs (in other words, CMEs are unlikely to be responsible for a Zombie Apocalypse), the event can disrupt the magnetosphere enough to cause some fairly acute inconveniences.

An image of the coronal mass ejection of Jan. 27, 2012.

Coronal mass ejections are not a rare occurrence. The sun’s corona, which is covered and bound up with strong magnetic fields that are ropy and twisted in nature (think of a writhing mass of snakes holding in the surface of a globe), occasionally finds itself marked with sunspots, or active regions. When these regions become extra-active, the magnetically confined solar atmosphere can literally explode outwards, violently releasing bubbles of gas and magnetic fields. Once these balloon-shaped coronal mass ejections – which can contain over 220 billion pounds of plasma, along with a huge amount of electromagnetic radiation – are released, they generally reach Earth one to five days after eruption. After interacting with the solar wind and the interplanetary magnetic field, the matter reaches Earth and interacts with its magnetosphere.

While this is where the problems start, it’s important to note that not long ago, CMEs didn’t cause humanity much trouble. Maybe 150 years ago or more, even the strongest CME was unlikely to do much (if it was even detected) except cause beautiful displays of aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis(the Southern Lights) in the southern hemisphere.

Today, of course, mankind has ushered in technology, and the planet is highly networked by radio and satellite transmissions that link the planet together for the purpose of telecommunications, banking, security, the Internet, air traffic control and other travel, navigation, weather prediction, entertainment and a host of other activities. Once a CME reaches Earth, it can disrupt radio transmissions, damage satellites and fry electrical transmission lines and facilities, resulting in long-lasting and catastrophic power, services and telecommunications outages.

So, while relatively harmless once upon a time, CMEs now represent a significant threat to the highly tech-enabled citizens of Earth, as mankind first discovered in late-summer 1859, when a powerful CME event, known to history as the Solar Superstorm or the Carrington Event, disrupted the world’s infant telecommunications network. The 1859 event is still considered the most powerful solar storm in recorded history.

First observed by British astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington, the “super flare” took place on Sept. 1, 1859, shortly after astronomers observed an unusual number of sunspots on the surface of the sun on August 28. The largest CME, which was preceded by a smaller event, took only 17 hours and 40 minutes to reach Earth. (Though it normally takes three to four days for a CME to reach Earth, it’s believed that the earlier, smaller CME actually “cleared the way” of material the ejections typically need to push aside on their journey toward our planet.) Lights from the aurorae were seen around the world, most notably over the Caribbean and even in equatorial regions. There were reports that the Northern Lights were so bright overnight in the Rocky Mountains that miners working there rose and made breakfast, mistakenly believing that the sun had risen.

A decade earlier, the bright aurorae would have been the only effects noticed by mankind. But in 1859, the world was changing. During the worst of the solar storm, magnetic compasses went haywire, spinning uselessly, and the nascent telegraph system in the U.S. and Europe failed, fizzling transmissions lines and causing fires in a number of telegraph offices, injuring many operators.

Still, the damage was relatively minimal and the recovery quick. The same can’t be said of storms in later decades.

In March 1989, a powerful CME resulted in the failure of Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid, which went offline for about nine hours, throwing 6 million people into darkness and resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The events that resulted in the power grid’s collapse – transformer failure as a direct result of ground induced currents (GIC) – reportedly took only 90 seconds from start to finish, removing any opportunity for meaningful intervention to try and reduce damage.

Another strong CME event in 1994 resulted in major damage to two communications satellites, wreaking havoc with television and radio networks as well as global positioning satellite (GPS) systems in North America, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada.

The troubling part is that both the 1989 and 1994 events were the result of coronal mass ejections and space storms far, far weaker than the 1859 event. While the term “perfect storm” is overused, this is precisely what the 1859 event was: a merger of several events that, even viewed independently, would have been noteworthy. Happening in concert, they were catastrophic (or would have been had they occurred 100 years later). Which raises the question: What if it happened today? Scientists are often asked to speculate what kind of damage another “perfect space storm” could cause to modern life.

“The question I get asked most often is, ‘Could a perfect space storm happen again, and when?’” according to Bruce Tsurutani, a plasma physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I tell people it could, and it could very well be even more intense than what transpired in 1859. As for when, we simply do not know,” he says.

But some years are a better bet than others, and 2013 might be a good bet, given what we know about the sun. Our nearest and most beloved star goes through periods of high and low activity, with cycles repeating every 11 years. During the low activity years, sunspot activity is more sluggish and CMEs are less frequent. During high activity years (also called “solar maximum”), sunspots become numerous and CMEs more common. The sun’s activity cycle is current waxing: the next solar maximum is expected in the 2013 to 2014 time frame, according to NASA.

Not only is the planet considerably more networked – and reliant on those networks – now than in 1989 and 1994, there are other considerations, as well: the well-being of anyone aboard the International Space Station (ISS) outside Earth’s protective atmosphere, for starters, or anyone in transit to the station. But it’s not only telecom systems and astronauts who could feel the brunt of strong space weather. CMEs can affect other systems, as well, including, power lines and oil or gas pipelines.

Recognition of the potential for damage was furthered by a report published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2008. The report’s authors warned that a “century-class” (as in, once every 100 years) space weather storm could cause billions of dollars in economic damage globally. Under the umbrella of global telecommunications, such an event could devastate everything from emergency service systems to banking systems, hospital equipment, air traffic control, railways, highway systems, water treatment facilities and even ordinary consumer electronics like laptops, cell phones and GPS-based car navigation systems.

Another study, published by NASA in 2009, theorized that, in the event of a large-scale solar storm, electric power and communications to tens of millions of people could be interrupted for months, putting the health and safety of many in jeopardy.

As recognition of the potential for damage from strong CMEs has progressed, scientists and governments have begun to take baby steps towards instituting programs of preventive measures. While the ability to block a solar storm is still the stuff of science fiction, of course, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the fallout.

Advance knowledge of the likelihood of a CME, or an ejection itself once it takes place, could mean the difference between disaster and inconvenience. The operators of electric grids, satellites and telecommunications networks (for starters), armed with warnings of impending space weather, can take steps to reduce the load on sensitive circuits, induce temporary black-outs, delay maintenance and equipment replacement and prevent surges by selectively grounding sensitive devices and engaging systems designed to protect networks and infrastructure following a powerful CME.

The first step, of course, is to better understand the sun and how it behaves in order to create accurate models for predicting its behavior. Today called “heliophysics,” it’s an emerging science that seeks to better understand the sun-Earth relationship and do for space weather forecasting what the first satellites did for terrestrial weather forecasting. To further the science, NASA has established a Heliophysics Division in Washington D.C., and the United Nations has also taken steps to induce global interest – not to mention investment – in the new field.

Scientists say all these measures are necessary since sooner or later, another “perfect storm” of solar/space weather events will occur and possibly even exceed the events of 1859.

“We know it is coming, but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr. Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, said in an interview with British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. “It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigation, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world. Large areas will be without electricity power and to repair that damage will be hard as that takes time.”

In 2005, solar physicist Sami Solanki, director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, told a conference audience that an unusually high output of solar flares since the 1940s may be pointing toward record solar activity during the sun’s solar maximum in 2013. “Except possibly for a few brief peaks, the Sun is more active currently than at any time in the past 11,000 years,” said Solanki.

Of course, simply recognizing the potential isn’t enough. Monitoring, too, has become critical, and several projects have been launched to monitor Earth-sun space weather with the goal of providing better advance warning.

The Chinese have embarked on a space weather monitoring program called “KuaFu” (named after a giant in Chinese mythology who wanted to capture the sun). Kuafu is comprised of three space buoys – one will be located at the Sun-Earth Lagrangian Point L1 (a point of gravitational equilibrium between two celestial objects: in this case, Earth and the sun) and one each will be placed in orbit over Earth’s two poles. These buoys, which are expected to be in place and operational this year, will monitor the solar wind upstream from Earth, vigilantly testing for disruptions.

In addition, NASA Applied Sciences is collaborating with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to create and establish a forecasting system that can help predict and mitigate effects of geomagnetically induced current (GIC) from CMEs on high-voltage power transmission systems. Thanks to ACE, a spacecraft/lab also stationed at the Sun-Earth L1 point about 930,000 miles “upstream” from Earth, the program would have advanced warning of a CME. ACE would make measurements of the ejection’s speed, density and magnetic field and relay this information to scientists 30 minutes before the CME hit Earth, allowing them to create accurate models with computers.

“We quickly feed the data into computers,” project leader Antti Pulkkinen said. “Our models predict fields and currents in Earth’s upper atmosphere and propagate these currents down to the ground.” Project team members, armed with intelligence from the crunched data, can then issue alerts to utility companies about geomagnetically induced currents so the companies can take steps to protect their infrastructure, shutting down for short periods if necessary. With enough advance warning, satellite operators can temporarily turn off satellites so they won’t fry when bypassed by the plasma cloud from the CME.

So, what would a powerful solar storm in 2013 mean to ordinary citizens? While the direct health risks are minimal (no need to begin fashioning tin foil hats for the family), the inconvenience factor could be high. (In other words, laying in a few batteries and a little bottled water wouldn’t be an overreaction.) It’s the price we pay for living a mere 93 million miles away from a giant, unpredictable and occasionally cranky hydrogen fusion furnace.



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