For the past few months the sun has been blasting out a series of massive solar flares. The behavior is in line with predictions for the current solar maximum – a period every 11 years when greater solar activity can be measured due to a shift in the sun’s magnetic poles.
Though this year’s flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) haven’t put humanity’s satellite network at risk, some researchers believe that future space weather events could do just that.
University of Colorado Space Physics Professor Daniel Baker this week gave a presentation at the 46th Annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The topic of the presentation was a warning to societies of the real dangers that intense space weather could cause. Using the example of a large solar ejection that missed Earth in 2012, Baker warned that a storm of that size that hits our planet could knock out satellites and power grids while putting astronauts in the International Space Station at risk.
“My space weather colleagues believe that until we have an event that slams Earth and causes complete mayhem, policymakers are not going to pay attention,” said Baker. “The message we are trying to convey is that we made direct measurements of the 2012 event and saw the full consequences without going through a direct hit on our planet.”
The 2012 CME that Baker refers to was the most powerful CME ever recorded with modern technology. The storm managed to reach the Earth’s surface in just 18 hours – less than half the time average CMEs take to reach the planet.
“I liken it to war games — since we have the information about the event, let’s play it through our various models and see what happens,” said Baker. “If we do this, we would be a significant step closer to providing policymakers with real-world, concrete kinds of information that can be used to explore what would happen to various technologies on Earth and in orbit rather than waiting to be clobbered by a direct hit.”
Baker also refers to solar events in 1859 and 1989 as signs of what could happen. The 1859 event, known as the Carrington storm, caused an aurora that could be seen from the Arctic to Central America and caused fires in telegraph offices. In 1989 a solar storm left millions of people in Quebec without power for hours.
(Image courtesy NASA/SDO)