Monday, September 7, 2015

Downfall of the Modern World - Solar Storms

  •  Solar storms pose more danger than ever recorded in human history
  • Centuries of technological advanced could be wiped in the worst case scenario
  • The Sun has fired a warning shot before
  • Civilization must take steps to reduce risks

The forecasters in mid-October of 2003 were worried. For more than a week, they had watched plumes of material arcing out over our star's southeastern limb. Something on the far side of the Sun was venting vast plumes of plasma into space. Soon, the Sun's rotation spun the culprit into view: It was a region of sunspots more than 13 times the diameter of the Earth, bubbling with volatile magnetic fields.

The Sun and Earth's magnetic field
Sunspots are the main sources for solar flares — brief pulses of intense radiation created when the Sun's magnetic loops spontaneously snap and rearrange themselves. Sometimes, a spate of solar flares will spur an even more violent phenomenon, a billion-ton belch of magnetized plasma that explodes out from our star at millions of miles per hour, plowing into anything in its path. Scientists call these solar belches "coronal mass ejections," or CMEs.

By October 28, the Sun's rotation had brought the sunspot region into direct alignment with Earth. And then it happened. Around 7 am Eastern time, the region released a pulse of high-energy photons in one of the strongest solar flares ever recorded. Eight minutes later, satellites detected the photons arriving at Earth, followed some minutes later by a shower of slower-moving, high-energy subatomic particles. The particles accumulated in the Earth's upper atmosphere, where they dramatically interfered with high-frequency radio communications and slightly increased radiation exposures for airplane crews and passengers. At a fuel cost of several tens of thousands of dollars per flight, commercial airlines began rerouting many of their planes on longer, safer routes that did not take them near the Earth's polar regions, where our planet's magnetic field caused most of the particles to linger. The flurry of particles also degraded GPS satellite signals, causing ground-based receivers to temporarily lose service or receive flawed navigation data.

The Largest Magnetic Storm on Record, The “Carrington Event” of August 27 to September 7, 1859

A geomagnetic storm produces dangerous electrical currents in a manner analogous to a moving bar magnet raising currents in a coil of wire. When a CME hits the Earth's magnetic field and sends it oscillating, those undulating magnetic fields raise currents in conductive material within and on the Earth itself. The currents that ripple through our planet can easily enter transformers that serve as nodes in regional, national, and global power grids. They can also seep into and corrode the steel in lengthy stretches of oil and gas pipeline.

L4 Magnetic Storm, Breathtaking Aurora Borealis

On October 29, power grids around the world felt the strain from the geomagnetic currents. In North America, utility companies scaled back electricity generation to protect the grid. In Sweden, a fraction of a CME-induced electric current overloaded a high-voltage transformer, and blacked out the city of Malmo for almost an hour. The CME dumped an even larger mass of energetic particles into Earth's upper atmosphere and orbital environment, where satellites began to fail because of cascading electronics glitches and anomalies. Most were recovered, but not all. Astronauts in low-Earth orbit inside the International Space Station retreated to the Station's shielded core to wait out the space-weather storm. Even there, the astronauts received elevated doses of radiation, and occasionally saw brief flashes of brilliant white and blue—bursts of secondary radiation caused when a stray particle passed directly through the vitreous humor of the astronauts' eyes at nearly light-speed.

Flares and CMEs from the Sun continued to bombard the Earth until early November of that year, when at last our star's most active surface regions rotated out of alignment with our planet. No lives were lost, but many hundreds of millions of dollars in damages had been sustained.

Taken from Popular Mechanics 'The Looming Threat of a Solar Superstorm'

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