The Problem of Space Weather

I wanted to share this story not merely because it’s a real concern, but also because I found the man being interviewed so balanced and reasonable. Read the interview answers themselves and ignore the somewhat hyperbolic introductory text from the journalist. The main issue is with solar flares and coronal mass ejections  (“space weather,” as Mike Hapgood calls it) and their potential for disruptive effects on Earth. That is a real potential, but it’s hard to pin down and quantify. We’ve certainly seen disruption of satellites and power grids, but we haven’t received a truly thunderous solar storm since the dawn of the computer age.

The thing is, we don’t really understand a great deal about space weather, which makes predicting it and guarding against it quite difficult. A powerful enough solar storm can knock out power and disrupt communication, but could it also do permanent damage to circuits and data storage? We just don’t know.

How are solar flares and coronal mass ejections related?
There’s an association between flares and coronal mass ejections, but it’s a relationship we don’t quite understand scientifically. Sometimes the CME launches before the flare occurs, and vice versa.

What happens when those particles reach Earth?
There can be a whole range of effects. The classic one everyone quotes is the effect on the power grid. A big geomagnetic storm can essentially put extra electric currents into the grid. If it gets bad enough, you can have a complete failure of the power grid — it happened in Quebec back in 1989. If you’ve got that, then you’ve just got to get it back on again. But you could also damage the transformers, which would make it much harder to get the electric power back.

How else could people be affected?
You get big disturbances in the Earth’s upper atmosphere — what we call the ionosphere — and that could be very disruptive to things like GPS [the network of global positioning system satellites]. Given the extent we use GPS in everyday life [including for cellphone networks, shipping safety and financial transaction records], that’s a big issue.

The storms can also disrupt communications on transoceanic flights. Sometimes when that happens, they will either divert or cancel flights. So that would be the like the disruption we had in Europe from the volcano two years ago, where they had to close down airspace for safety reasons.

What went wrong in the 1989 storm?
In the U.K., there were two damaged transformers that had to be repaired. But no power cuts. The worst thing is what happened in Quebec. In Quebec, the power system went from normal operation to failure in 90 seconds. It  affected around 6 million people. The impact was reckoned to be $2 billion Canadian in 1989 prices.

We had lots of disruption to communications to spacecraft operations. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has big radars tracking everything in space, and as they describe it, they lost 1,600 space objects. They found them again, but for a few days they didn’t know where they were.

What are the chances that something like this will happen soon?
A recent paper [published in February in the journal Space Weather] tried to estimate the chance of having a repeat of 1859 and came up with a value of a 12% chance of it happening in the next 10 years. That’s quite a high risk.

What can be done?
The biggest step is to make more and more people aware of the issue, so they’re thinking about it in the way they design things. That’s the most critical part.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.