Last updated: August 21, 2012
Whatever happens on the ground, in the coming years solar phycisists expect the Sun's behavior to impact the planet in ways rarely (if ever) experienced by modern man.
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On July 11, 2012, an X-class solar flare shot out from our home star with a vengeance, shelling the earth with a billion hydrogen bombs’ worth of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. Some radio frequencies near the North Pole were jammed for about an hour. Then, early in the morning of July 15th, a brilliant display of northern lights could be seen in the northern United States. It was the biggest space weather event so far in 2012. Scientists are bracing for more of the same, maybe even worse as the next peak in the sunspot cycle arrives in Autumn of 2013.
The year 2011 was likewise a memorable one for solar activity. In June of that year, a medium-sized corona mass ejection, or CME, had NASA officials plenty worried. While its eventual impact proved inconsequential, another CME emitted on the far side of the Sun was packing considerably more heat.
"If this [second] event was on a collision course with the U.S., we would have had a major space weather event," Antti Pulkkinen of the Goddard Space Flight Center told the New York Times. "In this regard, we got lucky."
A few months earlier, on Valentines Day (also in 2011), a trio of solar flares caused minor disruptions to radio transmissions in China and produced auroras that were visible in the United Kingdom. Incredibly, Earth dodged a bullet on that occasion as well. That's because the CME that followed the flares to Earth was much weaker than expected.
NASA released this video depicting a medium-siced CME caught leaving the Sun by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011.
In 2010, dire forecasts for the anticipated 2013 peak in Sunspot Cycle 24 led the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to authorize $100 million to upgrade the nation's power grids. It wasn't much of a debate, either. The vote on the Grid Act was 47-0, with many legislators acknowledging that a big enough solar storm can knock out nationwide grids, satellites, microchip circuitry and thousands of pole transformers, all in a single blow.
Undoubtedly, members of Congress had done their homework. A NASA-funded study published in 2009, "Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts," went so far as to suggest that electric power and communications to tens of millions of people could disappear for months.
Regardless, the Grid Act failed to pass the U.S. Senate. The country's aging infrastructure thus continues to fend for itself. Meanwhile, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a self-regulatory body managed by utility companies, formed a Geomagnetic Disturbance Task Force in 2010 to craft new standards and regulations to protect the grid from cataclysmic space-weather-induced failures. To date, the task force has generated a lot of documents, (like a white paper) but not many changes.
NASA funded a study by the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 that outlined the long-term consequences to the industrial world should a powerful corona mass ejection overwhelm the Earth's magnetic field.
A perfect storm storm striking our modern infrastructure, hurling us back to a pre-industrial age, has been forecast for some time. Solar physicist Sami Solanki warned in 2005 that an unusually high output of solar flares since the 1940's may be the prelude to record activity by 2013. "Except possibly for a few brief peaks, the Sun is more active currently than at any time in the past 11,000 years," he told a conference of his peers in Boulder, Colorado. Solanki directs the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.
Usually, the warning sign of a solar flare about to fire is an expanding bubble of plasma on the Sun’s surface one or two days before. To the naked eye, this looks like a black blotch on a bright canvass, hence the term sunspot was coined. The darker color is due to a much lower surface temperature. This decrease comes in advance of a huge burst of plasma that erupts deep within the sun. A magnetic field line directs the plasma outward.
Last November, a cluster of sunspots formed and fired off an X-class solar flare.
Beside sunspots, a few other terms used by solar scientists are worth remembering, since journalists use them (not always accurately) when reporting space weather events:
Solar Flare - This is a bundle of X-rays and gamma rays that reach the earth 8-120 minutes after exploding out of a sunspot. Because multiple atoms are involved, different parts of the flare arrive at different speeds. The rays are capable of disabling radio transmissions and causing other magnetic disturbances. Solar flares, when reported, are linked to an already identified "active region" of sunspots (e.g. "AR 1339"), and a time date (e.g. "1549 UTC"). UTC stands for Coordinated Universal Time, (formerly GMT). In this example, 15:49 is 3:49 p.m. in the U.K., and 10:49 a.m. in New York.
CME - This is short for "coronal mass ejection", a fiery mass of charged particles (aka plasma) propelled through space by solar wind. The word corona refers to the sun's outermost layer, which remains visible during a total solar eclipse.) A CME's trip to earth takes a lot longer than the initial solar flare, typically 48-36 hours. On videos, it's the CME that you see splitting away from the sun. While the ejection packs a lot more punch than the initial flare, NASA and other space agencies at least have time to warn satellite and power grid operators of any potential risks.
Visualization of a solar flare, CME and the earth's magnetosphere. The planet is the white sphere in the upper right corner, surrounded by a protective magnetic field that absorbs and deflects the sun's radiation. The graphic is obviously not to scale distance-wise.
X-Class, M-Class, etc. - Solar flares are divided into several classes of intensity. As a memory aid, just think of C-class flares as Common, M-class as Moderate and X-class as eXtreme events. (There are also much weaker A and B-class solar flares.) A number attached to the letter, e.g. M 5, represents a standard measurement of X-ray energy. Scientists refer to it as "peak flux". An X2 flare is twice as powerful as an X1 flare, but four times more powerful than an M5 flare. The strongest solar flare ever measured was an X28 in 2003. Read here for more info.
Trajectory - It's important to remember that the sun is a massive object located far, far away. This makes the angle in which a solar flare/CME shoots away from it just as critical as the intensity. Most inbound CME's register only a glancing blow against the earth's outer layer, or magnetosphere, so predicting the strength of an impact remains a challenge. Complicating matters further, a solar wave of radiation striking the earth has a bow shock effect. This must also be assessed before scientists can determine which parts of the planet (if any) are at risk.
Geomagnetic Storm - Whenever large amounts of radiation in space strike the outer atmosphere, the event is referred to as a "storm". (The recurrence of such events, incidentally, is known as "space weather".) The direction of a compass needle may be affected by a geomagnetic storm, and radio communications may be disrupted for a period of time. In a worst-case scenario, satellites, electrical power grids, airplane navigation equipment and sensitive electronic circuitry on the ground could all be disabled. More often, however, a magnetic storm is simply reported in conjunction with the auroras it produces near the North and South Poles. Also known as the "Northern Lights", auroras are visible waves of ionized radiation (from space) bouncing off the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere.
Solar Cycle - First documented by astronomer Richard Carrington in the 19th century, the sun appears to repeat 22-year cycles of magnetism and sunspot activity over and over. The cycle is divided into two matching 11-year intervals, each containing a trough (no sunspots) and a peak (lots of sunspots). The only difference between the two 11-year cycles is the polarity of the magnetic fields, which reverses each time. As a result, each 11-year interval is considered one "sunspot cycle". We're now in Cycle 24, which began in 2008. For more info, check out this video tutorial from NASA.
To keep tabs on any potential doomsday scenario unfolding, the European Space Agency and NASA launched the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in 1995. In 2006, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) was sent up to join the vigil. STEREO's two satellites are positioned on opposite sides of the space, between the Sun and Earth, providing a fully three-dimensional view of CME's.
Artist image of the the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).
Nearly 20 other satellites managed by multiple space agencies, including Japan and India, are monitoring the Sun. On the ground, NASA's Space Environment Center tracks most of these probes. In the event that a strong CME starts heading towards our planet, it's the center's job to alert power grid operators and satellite controllers worldwide.
In 1859, the radiation spike from a powerful CME known as the Carrington Event (named after Richard Carrington) shut down the world’s rudimentary telegraph network for a short time. It is considered the biggest CME to hit the earth in its recorded history. Moreover, had an event of that size struck in modern times, damage would have been catastrophic.
Curiously, the solar storm in 1859 occurred during a lowpoint (i.e. trough) in the sunspot cycle. It's also credited with ending the Little Ice Age, the period between 1300 and 1859 AD, when few sunspots were seen. An epoch of intense cold gripped the northern hemisphere, destroying crops and causing the River Thames to freeze over every winter. Nowadays, solar phycisists blame the Little Ice Age (in part) on what's known as the Maunder Minimum, a lull in solar activity between 1645 and 1715.
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Articles of Interest
"Sun hurls humongous blob of plasma toward Earth." Space.com 8/21/13.
"Sun Will Flip Its Magnetic Field Soon." Space.com 8/7/13.
"Giant sunspot shoots out intense, X-class solar flare." Washington Post 7/12/12.
"Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather?" By Steve Tracton. Washington Post 7/11/12.
"An X-class Solar Flare Blasts Off, Heads to Earth." Includes photo and video. NASA News 11/4/11.
As Sun Storms Ramp Up, Electric Grid Braces for Impact." National Geographic 8/3/11.
"This Week's Solar Flare Illuminates the Grid's Vulnerability." By Peter Behr. New York Times 6/9/11.
"Sunspot Drop Won’t Cause Global Cooling." By Brandon Keim. Wired.com 6/15/11.
"New Little Ice Age in store?" By Stephen Adams. Telegraph, U.K. 6/15/11.
"A Solar Scientist Rebuts a Cool Sunspot Prediction." New York Times 6/15/11.
"Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts (of a technological collapse...)" Space Studies Board, National Academy of Sciences. 2009.
"Catastrophe Looming? The Risks of Rising Solar Storm Activity." By Mike Wall. Space.com 2/17/11.
"Space Weather Turns Into an International Problem." NASA Science News 7/16/10.
"The Solar 'Katrina' Storm That Could Take Our Power Grid Out For Years." By Lawrence Joseph. Huffington Post 7/15/10.
"Regulators Assess the Ultimate Blackout Threat." By Peter Behr. New York Times 7/12/10.
"Nasa warns solar flares from 'huge space storm' will cause devastation." By Andrew Hough. Telegraph. U.K. 6/15/10.
"A Giant Breach in Earth's Magnetic Field." NASA press release. 12/16/08.
"Solar storm." BBC Focus. Sept. 2009
"A Future Space Weather Catastrophe: A Disturbing Possibility ". By Jeff Masters. WunderBlog 4/3/2009.
"Magnetic-Shield Cracks Found; Big Solar Storms Expected." National Geographic 12/17/08
"Leaks Found in Earth's Protective Magnetic Field." Space.com 12/16/08
"Earth Magnetic Field Reversal." By Mary-Sue Haliburton, Pure Energy Systems News 2/27/05
"Stronger Solar Storms Predicted: Blackouts May Result." National Geographic 3/7/06.
"Bracing the Satellite Infrastructure for a Solar Superstorm." Scientific American August 2008. (Note: full article requires payment to read.)
"The silent Sun’s uncertain course." The Financial Times 10/1/08 (register for free download of article).
"Spotless Sun: Blankest Year of the Space Age." NASA News release 9/30/08
Solar Cycle Primer video
The sunspot cycle
Windows to the Universe
Solar Cycle Driven By More Than Sunspots
NASA Satellites (image)
Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization's End (2007) by Lawrence Joseph.
DVD'S and TV Programs
The History Channel: Magnetic Storm (The Universe series), The Sun (Mega-Disasters series),
Discovery Channel: Perfect Disaster: Solar Storm