The Probability of a Perfect Solar Storm

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NASA recently revealed that two years ago, on July 23rd 2012, our planet was barely missed by a solar storm which could have sent us into a catastrophe. According to the readings taken from a satellite in the orbit, the solar flares could have caused serious the worst geomagnetic storm if it happened nine days earlier.

Five years back, National Academy of Sciences released a report, which vividly details how a solar storm could cause a heavy ruckus. It was estimated that such a storm could cause some $2.6 trillion in damage and heavy electricity problems. A large solar storm could leave 130 million people in the dark for months or years. These types of solar flares are known as Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). A CME is believed to occur when an eruption from the sun shoots X-rays, UV radiation, magnetized plasma clouds, electrons and protons. All the gas clouds and particles traveling at a very high speed are threaded along with magnetic field to wreak havoc on our planet’s magnetic fields.

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CME’s aren’t a rare event, but the one emitted in 2012 is considered as very potent. At the moment, it is predicted that the chance for such a full-scale technological chaos is around 12 percent. Physicist Pete Riley calculated the odds of an extreme solar storm. He commented that, “Initially, I was surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct”. The plausibility of fierce solar storm has caused a debate on how the power industries, governments and policy makers are going to mitigate the effects.

In the recorded history, only once a massive solar storm has occurred. It was on September 1859. Telegraph wires and other tech-stuff of that time suddenly shorted out. The magnetic field of Earth normally protects us from the solar flare, but the planet’s defenses were overwhelmed in the 1859 storm. Known as ‘Carrington Event’ (the storm was observed by an amateur astronomer in England called Richard Carrington), the solar flare particles reached Earth within an hour. The next solar storm was reported in 1921 and March 1989, but they are less powerful.

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It is significant to understand the remote probability of this catastrophic event and to understand how it would impact vulnerable systems (including the satellites, radio, GPS, grid and aircraft). Nowadays, astronomers are familiar with such events and have the ability to forecast. The worst solar eruptions might take 18 to 36 hours to reach our planet, and those eruptions could be evaluated immediately, giving the potency of the flares. Advance warning systems might protect power-grids and satellites (by putting it in sleep mode), although a severe solar storm might also cause more permanent damage.

A massive CME couldn’t be stopped, but at least we have some time to prepare for its worst effects.

 

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