Earth might only have a few hours warning
A NASA camera recently captured the Sun unleashing a huge solar flare. Matt Sampson has the details.
Super-Powerful Solar Storms Could Knock Out Communications, GPS, Power Systems With Only a Few Hours’ Warning
There’s no need to panic, but we do need to be aware: Many of the systems we in the modern world rely on — our telecommunications, GPS, satellites and power grids — could be disrupted for an extended period of time if a solar storm as large as the one that hit Earth in 1859 were to happen today, and we’d probably have less than a day to prepare for it.
That’s the conclusion of Space Weather Preparedness Strategy, a new report released this week by the U.K. Cabinet Office that urges the British government as well as other nations around the world to get ready for the risks space weather poses to the modern communication, aviation and energy systems we all rely on.
“The main challenge we face is that awareness of the risk is low,” the report says. “Much more needs to be done to encourage potentially vulnerable sectors to adopt measures to mitigate the likely impacts.”
The “space weather” the report details is made up of emissions from the surface of the sun, which regularly releases ultraviolet rays and X-rays as well as energetic particles, which can cause radiation storms that impact aircraft and satellite systems.
Few of these storms have the impact of what are known as coronal mass ejections, which blast away big parts of the Sun’s atmosphere. They can cause the biggest impacts to our planet, and so are the kind of solar storms that have scientists most worried, the report says.
Most coronal mass ejections, the paper notes, never make it here because they’re not emitted in our direction. Those that do typically take about one to three days to reach us, and scientists can predict their arrival time to within about six hours.
The worst-case scenario for such an event is the solar storm known as the 1859 Carrington Event, so named for the amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who was the first to discover “a cluster of enormous dark spots that freckled” the sun’s surface when he peered through his telescope on Sept. 1, 1859. “Five minutes later the fireballs vanished, but within hours their impact would be felt across the globe,” the History Channel notes.
Later that evening, telegraph systems around the world stopped working as the solar storm spewed “electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth,” according to the History Channel. “All over the planet, colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp and laborers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising.”
While a solar storm like the one in 1859 would have “wide-ranging impacts,” the report says, the biggest danger would be to electrical power grids around the world, which could experience outages that could last anywhere from a few hours to perhaps days.
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