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Biggest Solar Storm in 150 Years Nearly Destroyed Earth in 2012

July 29, 2014
Al Jazeera America & Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal & Dr. Tony Phillips / NASA

If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news. Two years ago, Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in more than 150 years. "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces." However, there were some published warnings.


Biggest Solar Storm in 150 Years
Nearly Hit Earth in 2012

Al Jazeera America

A 2012 Warning Ignored:
Flare-up: How the Sun Could Put an End to Nuclear Power

Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal

(Spring 2012) -- Solar energy may soon eclipse nuclear power -- only not in the way we hoped. According to NASA, the planet will soon face an outbreak of powerful solar flares capable of collapsing global power grids. Were this to happen, the world's nuclear reactors could be left to run wild, overheat, melt, and explode.

The sun's magnetic cycle peaks every 22 years while sunspot activity crests every 11 years. Both events are set to peak in 2013. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) trigger geomagnetic disturbances (GMDs) -- tides of high-energy particles that can disrupt power lines.

Since the 1970s, the array of high-voltage transmission lines spanning the US has grown tenfold. NASA warns these interconnected networks can be energized by a solar flare, causing "an avalanche of blackouts carried across continents [that] . . . could last for weeks to months. " A National Academy of Sciences report estimates a "century-class " solar storm could cause 20 times the damage as Hurricane Katrina while "full recovery could take four to ten years. "

There have been two massive CMEs over the past 153 years. The 1859 "Carrington Event " irradiated Earth for nine days, causing the Northern Lights to erupt over Hawai'i. On May 14, 1921, a GMD lit up northern skies as far south as Puerto Rico. Both flares disrupted telegraph communication around the world.

But nineteenth- and twentieth-century telegraph systems were more resilient than today's electronics. Solar flares can bake the circuitry that controls aircraft, banking, GPS, radio, TV broadcasts, iPods, and the Internet. As NASA solar physicist Lika Guhathakurta put it: "A similar storm today might knock us for a loop."

On March 13, 1989, a 90-second solar blast slapped HydroQuebec's transmission system and left six million Canadians without electricity for nine hours. The storm cooked transformers in Great Britain and triggered 200 "anomalies" at oil-, coal-, and nuclear-fueled facilities across the US.

A Carrington-sized GMD could damage thousands of extra high voltage (EHV) transformers around the world. These transformers can weigh up to 300 tons and cost more than $1 million. Power grids cannot operate without them. Because each is custom-built to regional specifications, procuring new EHVs can take up to three years. Rebuilding a damaged grid could take decades. That could be the best-case scenario. More worrisome is imagining what would happen to nuclear power plants that are reliant on electrical grids.

A 2011 Oak Ridge National Laboratory report warned of a 33 percent likelihood that a solar flare could lead to "long-term power loss" over a nuclear reactor's life. With 440 nuclear power plants in 30 countries, and 250 research reactors, there are nearly 700 potential Fukushimas waiting to be unleashed.

Faced with a grid collapse, nuclear plants must rely on backup power to cool reactor cores and spent-fuel ponds. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires only eight hours of battery power and enough fuel to run emergency generators for a week. Restoring outside power to Fukushima's damaged reactors was a daunting task even when Japan had a functioning grid to fall back on. If the Sun sends a geomagnetic tsunami sweeping across Earth, it could become impossible to provide any form of traditional power.

What You Can Do: Ask Congress to pass the Solar Shield Bill (H.R.668).

NASA has proposed a "Solar Shield" to detect incoming CMEs and warn operators to shut down the grid until the danger passes. Unfortunately, the plan has never been field-tested. The US could protect its grid by spending around $1 billion to "harden" 350 key EHV transformers and stock blast-proof warehouses with replacement parts. Transformers could be protected with ground resistors. Costing about $40,000 each, they could be installed on 5,000 critical transformers for less than $200 million -- about one-tenth the cost of a B-2 bomber.

In August 2010, the US House of Representatives unanimously approved HR 5026, a bill that would have protected the grid against geomagnetic storms. But the Senate failed to act. Last June, the US and UK announced plans to mandate "controlled power cuts " to protect the grid -- but that's only two countries. Until every nuclear nation is prepared for grid collapse, the potential cascade of core meltdowns could mark the end of the industrialized world as we know it.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.

Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012
Dr. Tony Phillips / NASA

(July 23, 2014) – Transcript:
If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century appeared out of deep space and buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news.

Two years ago, Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in as much as 150+ years.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado.

Baker, along with colleagues from NASA and other universities, published a seminal study of the storm in the December 2013 issue of the journal Space Weather. Their paper, entitled "A major solar eruptive event in July 2012," describes how a powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) tore through Earth orbit on July 23, 2012. Fortunately Earth wasn't there. Instead, the storm cloud hit the STEREO-A spacecraft.

"I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did, " says Baker. "If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.

Extreme solar storms pose a threat to all forms of high-technology. They begin with an explosion -- a "solar flare " -- in the magnetic canopy of a sunspot. X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at light speed, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere; side-effects of this "solar EMP " include radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors. Minutes to hours later, the energetic particles arrive. Moving only slightly slower than light itself, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics.

Then come the CMEs, billion-ton clouds of magnetized plasma that take a day or more to cross the Sun-Earth divide. Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.

Before July 2012, when researchers talked about extreme solar storms their touchstone was the iconic Carrington Event of Sept. 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who actually saw the instigating flare with his own eyes. In the days that followed his observation, a series of powerful CMEs hit Earth head-on with a potency not felt before or since. Intense geomagnetic storms ignited Northern Lights as far south as Cuba and caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices and thus disabling the 'Victorian Internet."

A similar storm today could have a catastrophic effect. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.

"In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event," says Baker. "The only difference is, it missed."

In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather entitled "On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events." In it, he analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years. By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.

The answer: 12%.

"Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct, " says Riley. "It is a sobering figure."

In his study, Riley looked carefully at a parameter called Dst, short for "disturbance -- storm time." This is a number calculated from magnetometer readings around the equator.

Essentially, it measures how hard Earth's magnetic field shakes when a CME hits. The more negative Dst becomes, the worse the storm. Ordinary geomagnetic storms, which produce Northern Lights around the Arctic Circle, but otherwise do no harm, register Dst=-50 nT (nanoTesla).

The worst geomagnetic storm of the Space Age, which knocked out power across Quebec in March 1989, registered Dst=-600 nT. Modern estimates of Dst for the Carrington Event itself range from -800 nT to a staggering -1750 nT.

In their Dec. 2013 paper, Baker et al. estimated Dst for the July 2012 storm. "If that CME had hit Earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have registered a Dst of -1200, comparable to the Carrington Event and twice as bad as the March 1989 Quebec blackout."

The reason researchers know so much about the July 2012 storm is because, out of all the spacecraft in the solar system it could have hit, it did hit a solar observatory. STEREO-A is almost ideally equipped to measure the parameters of such an event.

"The rich data set obtained by STEREO far exceeded the relatively meagre observations that Carrington was able to make in the 19th century, " notes Riley. "Thanks to STEREO-A we know a lot of about the magnetic structure of the CME, the kind of shock waves and energetic particles it produced, and perhaps most importantly of all, the number of CMEs that preceded it."

It turns out that the active region responsible for producing the July 2012 storm didn't launch just one CME into space, but many. Some of those CMEs "plowed the road " for the superstorm.

A paper in the March 2014 edition of Nature Communications by UC Berkeley space physicist Janet G. Luhmann and former postdoc Ying D. Liu describes the process: The July 23rd CME was actually two CMEs separated by only 10 to 15 minutes. This double-CME traveled through a region of space that had been cleared out by yet another CME four days earlier. As a result, the storm clouds were not decelerated as much as usual by their transit through the interplanetary medium.

"It's likely that the Carrington event was also associated with multiple eruptions, and this may turn out to be a key requirement for extreme events," notes Riley.

"In fact, it seems that extreme events may require an ideal combination of a number of key features to produce the 'perfect solar storm.' "

"Pre-conditioning by multiple CMEs appears to be very important," agrees Baker.

A common question about this event is, how did the STEREO-A probe survive? After all, Carrington-class storms are supposed to be mortally dangerous to spacecraft and satellites. Yet STEREO-A not only rode out the storm, but also continued taking high-quality data throughout.

"Spacecraft such as the STEREO twins and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (a joint ESA/NASA mission) were designed to operate in the environment outside the Earth's magnetosphere, and that includes even quite intense, CME-related shocks," says Joe Gurman, the STEREO project scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "To my knowledge, nothing serious happened to the spacecraft."

The story might have been different, he says, if STEREO-A were orbiting Earth instead of traveling through interplanetary space.

"Inside Earth's magnetosphere, strong electric currents can be generated by a CME strike," he explains. "Out in interplanetary space, however, the ambient magnetic field is much weaker and so those dangerous currents are missing." In short, STEREO-A was in a good place to ride out the storm.

"Without the kind of coverage afforded by the STEREO mission, we as a society might have been blissfully ignorant of this remarkable solar storm," notes Baker. "How many others of this scale have just happened to miss Earth and our space detection systems? This is a pressing question that needs answers. "

If Riley's work holds true, there is a 12% chance we will learn a lot more about extreme solar storms in the next 10 years -- when one actually strikes Earth.

Says Baker, "we need to be prepared."

Web Link:
Severe Space Weather: Social and Economic Consequences -- Science@NASA

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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