How vulnerable is the Earth to a powerful solar storm?

(ORDO NEWS) — The consequences of solar storms can greatly affect the operation of communication systems. The Big Think website writes why the inhabitants of the Earth should prepare in advance for shock waves of the solar wind.

A geomagnetic storm of enormous magnitude, comparable to the so-called Carrington event, could kill millions of people and cause trillions of dollars in damage in the future.

And this, unfortunately, is not the most gloomy scenario yet. (The Carrington event is the most powerful geomagnetic storm of 1859 in the history of observations – approx. InoSMI)

When we talk about the ways in which the Universe is capable of causing serious damage to our planet, then, as a rule, catastrophes come to mind that can happen and have already happened on Earth in the past.

For example, at one time, collisions with asteroids and comets caused destruction and mass extinction of living beings – and no one guarantees that such cataclysms will not happen again.

Stellar catastrophes that can occur somewhere close to us in cosmic terms (for example, a supernova explosion and a burst of tidal destruction its tidal forces in principle, are quite capable of subjecting our planet to destructive radiation, and even eradicate all living things.

And any roaming black holes are a potential danger, because they are able to suddenly swallow our planet.

However, if we take the Sun, then no matter how stable and slowly evolving our luminary may seem, it is quite capable of preparing us an unpleasant surprise – in the form of a solar flare or the so-called coronal mass ejection coronal mass ejection is the ejection of matter from the solar corona.

How big is the risk of such events? That’s what Seth Goldin wanted to know when he asked us the following question: “Do I need to worry about another Carrington geomagnetic storm?”

There are many worse things that happen in everyday life that you should be worried about. But in the coming years and decades, we may face some kind of catastrophic change in space weather, and events like the Carrington event will not be the worst case scenario. Now we will talk about what everyone should know.

In 1859, research on the Sun was very primitive. Very little was known about the Sun; observations of our luminary were carried out by the projection method or through a darkened filter, which was placed above the outer lens of the telescope – this technique made it possible to view, count and track sunspots.

Scientists have been doing this since the time of Galileo. Humanity guessed that the Sun is the main source of energy for our planet, but we had no idea about the processes of nuclear fusion that fed the Sun; we were unaware of the mechanisms of interaction that occurs between the inner region of the star and its surface.

In addition, we had no idea about the power of the Sun’s magnetic fields, and had no idea how much energy is released from coronal loops and prominences in the solar photosphere.

The situation changed dramatically in 1859, when astronomer Richard Carrington, who was studying the sun, was observing a very large irregular sunspot. And suddenly, Carrington noticed a “white flash” of unprecedented brightness, it lasted about five minutes.

And about 18 hours later, the strongest geomagnetic storm in the history of mankind occurred on Earth. At that time, auroras were observed all over the world – and even at the equator.

The miners woke up in the middle of the night thinking it was already dawn; one could read a newspaper by the light of the aurora borealis. The telegraph machines, despite the fact that they were completely turned off, began to spark and became the cause of a fire.

It was the first solar flare in history that was observed by man – one of the manifestations of space weather. If something similar to the Carrington event of 1859 were to happen today, it would lead to a catastrophe that would cost humanity many trillions of dollars.

This solar flare arose as a result of processes that took place in the outer layers of the Sun; they could be observed even in the previous era during the onset of total solar eclipses.

If we study these flares using modern technologies, including coronographs that allow observations in daylight, then we will be able to distinguish loops, antennae and even streams of hot ionized plasma in the solar corona (in plasma, atoms are so hot that electrons are torn off from nuclei) .

These plasma structures in the solar corona are generated by the Sun’s magnetic field as hot charged particles travel along magnetic field lines between different regions of our sun, a pattern very different from Earth’s magnetic field: Earth’s magnetic field is due to a metal core deep in our planet, while the Sun’s magnetic field is generated just under its outer shell.

And this means that the magnetic field lines enter and exit the Sun randomly, with strong magnetic fields periodically looping, separating and reconnecting.

The rearrangement of magnetic field lines can not only lead to a rapid change in the strength and direction of the magnetic field near the Sun, but also give acceleration to charged particles.

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are charged particles (mostly protons and other atomic nuclei) that fly out of the Sun at great speed. Normally, our star emits a continuous stream of such particles – the so-called “solar wind”.

However, space weather phenomena such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections can not only greatly affect the flux density of charged particles emitted by the Sun, but also their speed and energy.

Usually all this happens in the equatorial regions, which means that such particle streams are very likely to fly in the direction of the Earth.

At the equator, the Sun makes a complete revolution in 25 days, while the Earth, as you know, makes a complete revolution around the Sun in 365 days.

At present, satellites and observatories help us monitor the Sun – this is, so to speak, our first line of defense, warning of the threats that are brought by changes in space weather.

Such threats arise if the flare is directed directly at the Earth, or if the coronal mass ejection is ring-shaped, which means that we only see the spherical halo of the flare or coronal mass ejection, which is directed directly at the Earth.

However, in most cases, solar flares and coronal mass ejections do not threaten the Earth.

By and large, they do not reach the Earth, and most of those that do reach our planet are relatively weak and do not have high speed; they are not able to somehow strongly affect the Earth (well, except that they can cause a harmless aurora); and most of the strong flows of matter that have flown to the Earth will still not cause any damage to our civilization.

But the real threat to us will arise only if the following three conditions occur simultaneously.

1. In order to penetrate the Earth’s magnetosphere, geomagnetic storms must be in proper magnetic alignment with our planet. If such an alignment is not observed, then the Earth’s magnetic field will quite easily deflect most particles, and those of them that still reach the Earth will cause only a harmless aurora.

True, such a magnetic alignment is rare, and at present it can be determined using the Solar Telescope. Daniel K. Inouye (DKIST) National Science Foundation (NSF).

2. Usually solar flares occur only in the photosphere of the Sun, however, those that interact with the solar corona are capable of causing a coronal mass ejection. The greatest danger will threaten the Earth if the ejection of coronal matter is directed towards the Earth, and the particles begin to move at sufficiently fast velocities.

3. A large amount of electrical infrastructure is required, in particular electrical circuits and coils. In 1859, when Carrington observed a massive solar flare, electricity was relatively new and rare; however, today it is ubiquitous in almost all infrastructure facilities around the world. As our power grids grow larger and larger, extreme space weather events will increasingly pose a threat to our infrastructure.

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections began to pose a danger to humanity only with the advent of modern, electrified and electronically dependent equipment.

By themselves, the particles ejected by the Sun and the changes in the induced magnetic field do not affect biological organisms; the worst we can experience is the bright aurora caused by charged particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

However, at present, when the Earth has a huge number of infrastructure facilities powered by electricity, solar flares and geomagnetic storms pose a very real danger.

Vulnerability arises from the abundance of all sorts of long conductors, closed circuits and inductors, transformers and other electrical / electronic equipment through which current flows.

As you know, an electric current flowing through a conductor creates a magnetic field; and vice versa: if the magnetic field in which the circuit and the inductor found themselves (or around the conductor) changes, then as a result, an electric current is also induced.

This is where the danger comes in: solar storms and other space weather events can affect the Earth by changing the magnetic field on the surface of our planet, and this causes a change in the magnetic field in electrical / electronic equipment, which, in turn, will lead to the appearance of an electrical charge and induce electric current. It is important to note that this process occurs

The danger of solar storms and other extreme space weather events for us on Earth is not that they threaten humans directly, but that they can generate unwanted electrical current in the wires that are always present in electrical equipment.

All this can lead to short circuits, fires, explosions, accidents in the power system and power outages, failure of electrical equipment, as well as cause many other accidents that may result from such a failure.

True, consumer electronics is not a serious problem here: if you know in advance about the approach of a solar storm and turn off all electrical appliances in the house, then nothing bad will happen to most of them.

The main threat hangs over the infrastructure, used in large-scale production and transmission of electricity; in this case, power surges will occur that will disable power plants and substations, as a result of which excess amounts of electrical energy will rush to cities and homes.

In 2013, at a time when our infrastructure was nine years younger and less advanced than it is today, a scientific study attempted to answer the following question: What would happen to the North American power grid as a result of a change in space weather similar to the Carrington event?

It turned out that on the North American continent alone, the damage caused will be estimated at about 2.6 trillion dollars.

Given the proliferation of terrestrial and space infrastructure (the second of which we will discuss a little later), as well as the fact that geomagnetic storms will affect our entire planet, an event like the geomagnetic storm of 1859 could be the first natural disaster that will cost humanity exceeding 14 digits (i.e. $10 trillion).

Here’s what a disaster scenario would look like.

– There is a rapid solar flare or coronal mass ejection, but we will either not know about it, or we will ignore all warnings.

– Since an extreme space weather event has occurred, the charged particles will arrive not in three or four days, as usual, but in less than a day.

– They will be maximally opposite to the Earth’s magnetic field, which will allow them to rain on our planet, penetrate into the magnetosphere and dramatically change the magnetic field near the Earth’s surface.

– And day and night in all corners of the Earth, at all latitudes, polar lights will be observed.

– They will induce electric current in our electrical grids, which will lead to huge voltage surges.

– As a result, power plants and substations will fail, there will be strong power surges in the commercial, residential and industrial sectors, which will cause a large number of fires.

– And if there is no electricity, then by and large it will be difficult to put out all these fires; if there is no means of communication, then there is no way to provide assistance to those who need it.

– Many areas of our planet will remain without electricity for several weeks, months and longer; passenger traffic between cities and suburbs will slow down sharply, or even stop.

– And since damaged electrical networks will need to be repaired or even completely replaced, for example, heating and cooling systems will stop working, the supply of food and clean water to the population will stop.

In the worst case, the outcome of a geomagnetic storm will be as follows: on the entire globe, the total material damage will amount to tens of trillions of dollars, many millions of the inhabitants of our planet will suffer from cold, begin to die of hunger or dehydration.

The atmosphere of the Earth is quite capable of protecting the surface of our planet from the streams of high-energy particles emitted by the Sun. However, artificial satellites in space do not have such protection.

Thus, the satellites will fail; and if they (like today’s Starlink satellite constellation) rely on artificial intelligence to avoid collisions, they will fail anyway.

If their work after too long a period of time is still restored, or if our luck changes, then not just single, but massive collisions of satellites will occur. In the worst-case scenario, low Earth orbit could become so littered with space debris that a terrifyingly sized debris region would appear in near-Earth space,

In addition, the geomagnetic storm of 1859 was not at all some unique, isolated event that could never be repeated. For example, on June 23, 2012, there was a solar flare that was as powerful as the 1859 Carrington event.

This flash occurred at the equatorial latitude of the Sun, but we were lucky – it was not directed towards the Earth, since our star at that time turned a little in the other direction. However, if the outbreak occurred with a difference of only some nine days, then there would be a direct hit.

In addition, as was established in the course of a comprehensive analysis of tree rings, ice cores and historical records, in 774/775, 993/994 and around 660 BC. much more powerful things happened. which surpassed the Carrington event of 1859 in their power.

For example, just over nine thousand years ago, a geomagnetic storm occurred that was ten times (according to other sources, a hundred times) more powerful than the 1859 storm. It is possible that so far we have avoided disaster only due to luck – and this is most likely the case.

When it comes to what measures should be taken to better prepare for protection from abnormal solar storms, we have not achieved any great results in this matter over the past nine years.

Most power plants and substations are not properly grounded and therefore will not be able to shield the peak voltages in the network, protecting homes, businesses and industrial buildings.

Electricity companies could be mandated to turn off their power grids (a gradual shutdown would take approximately 24 hours) to reduce the risk of fires, but this is still wishful thinking. In addition, advice could even be given to households in case of an emergency, but official advice does not currently exist.

The first step is to take measures to timely detect powerful geomagnetic storms; great strides have already been made in this task.

And yet, until we get our electrical grids and power distribution systems ready, until we prepare the inhabitants of the Earth for the inevitable, some kind of powerful solar storm – if one happens to happen in the near future – will cost us a lot, a lot. expensive.

Ironically, without the necessary infrastructure, electric vehicles during an abnormal solar storm will be practically useless.

And if we don’t have generators or some sort of powerful battery at hand at this point, we’ll have to rely solely on fossil fuels. As a result, repairing the infrastructure will cost us many times more than the cost of taking preventive measures.


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