Sunday, March 13, 2016

Should We Worry About Powerful Geomagnetic Storms Caused by Solar Activity? Absolutely Yes!

This illustration shows a CME blasting off the Sun's surface in the direction of Earth and subsequent impact at Earth. Image Credit: NASA

The sun’s violent activity and many unexpected and unpredictable events taking place on its surface throughout the years, are evidently suggesting that we should prepare for the worst. Huge explosions of magnetic field and plasma from the sun's corona, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), could one day produce extremely powerful geomagnetic storms striking Earth with enormous power, showing no mercy to our planet.

When a CME strikes Earth’s atmosphere, it causes temporary disturbances of the planet’s magnetic field, called geomagnetic storms. These storms could affect power grids, blacking out entire cities, impede radio communications and GPS navigation system. They could even disrupt satellites in orbit. So should we worry that one day an extreme CME would cause a very powerful geomagnetic storm, causing a global catastrophe, endangering our lives?

“The short answer to this is absolutely. The possibility of an extreme CME causing a very powerful geomagnetic storm is real. There’s considerable uncertainty to how frequent such storms are at the level where we worry about huge impacts on the power grid and the resulting impacts that a lack of electricity would have. Is it a 1 in 50, 1 in 100, or 1 in 1,000 year event? We just don’t know,” Doug Biesecker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, told

The largest recorded geomagnetic storm in the recorder history occurred in 1859 and is called the Carrington Event, or sometimes the 1859 Solar Superstorm. It disrupted telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America and auroras were seen in many parts of the world. The scientists predict that if a Carrington-sized event struck us now it would be devastating to our technology, hitting almost every aspect on our modern world relying on electronic devices, internet and satellite navigation systems. It would wreak havoc on humans, damaging vital services such as transport, sanitation and medicine.

This illustration shows a coronal mass ejection (CME) blasting off the Sun's surface in the direction of Earth. Such storms can produce aurora and technological effects on Earth. Image Credit: NASA
This illustration shows a coronal mass ejection (CME) blasting off the Sun's surface in the direction of Earth. Such storms can produce aurora and technological effects on Earth. Image Credit: NASA

To confront these threats, the U.S. government published in October 2015 its National Space Weather Strategy and the National Space Weather Action Plan, outlining activities towards improving the understanding, monitoring, prediction, and mitigation of space weather hazards.

“There was a new National Space Weather Strategy published by the White House in October, 2015. This and an accompanying Action Plan specify what federal agencies and industry must do in the coming years to be prepared for not only forecasting an extreme event, but ensuring the nation is resilient to the impacts of such an extreme event,” Biesecker noted.

These documents aim to enhance the preparedness for space weather events by interweaving and building upon existing policy efforts. They identify overarching goals that underpin and drive the activities necessary to improve the security and resilience of critical technologies and infrastructures. However, many of these activities will require long time horizons, necessitating sustained engagement among government agencies and the private sector.

Hopefully, our current fleet of spacecraft operating in deep space, designed to study the sun and solar activity events, is inestimably helpful when it comes to prediction of space weather. Biesecker is convinced that spacecraft like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), built jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), revolutionized our understanding of solar activity and improved our space weather prediction models.

“SOHO was very much a game changer. In January, 1997 the LASCO coronagraphs on SOHO observed what is now commonly referred to as a partial halo CME. Four days later, a geomagnetic storm occurred that was predicted based on the SOHO observations. This ushered in a revolution in forecasting, leading to more concrete knowledge of CMEs, the drivers of geomagnetic activity. Previously, one relied on proxies, such as erupting filaments or long duration solar flares, but these were at best about 70 percent reliable. Not only does a coronagraph tell us for sure that a coronal mass ejection erupted, but it tells us the direction, size, and speed. These have led to dramatic improvement in understanding the propagation of CME’s in the solar wind and in predicting geomagnetic storm occurrence and timing,” Biesecker explained.

“SDO is giving us a clearer picture of solar active regions and erupting filaments. The high cadence and high resolution of SDO give forecasters the clearest evidence of how sunspots and active regions are evolving and to then assess their potential to produce solar flares,” he added.

It seems that predicting what influence would a CME have on Earth and how much powerful geomagnetic storm would it create, when we observe it on the sun in its early stages, could be crucial to make important advancements in our forecasting and to better prepare for devastating effects of space weather. However, although currently the coronagraph can tell us whether Earth will get hit by an eruption and to determine when, it doesn’t give us the most important piece of information needed to determine the storm intensity.

Launched in February 2015, NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) could be very helpful, serving as an “early warning” spacecraft. DSCOVR is operating at the Lagrange point 1 (or L1), between Earth and the sun (approximately one million miles from our planet), observing and providing advanced warning of particles and magnetic fields. Placing DSCOVR in orbit around the L1 point provides definite advantages, including the quality of the solar wind observations. The spacecraft can tell us in advance when a surge of particles and magnetic field from the sun will hit Earth and if they have characteristics that will cause a geomagnetic storm on our planet.

DSCOVR monitors space weather from the L1 point, a million miles from Earth. Image Credit: NOAA/NASA
DSCOVR monitors space weather from the L1 point, a million miles from Earth. Image Credit: NOAA/NASA

“That is why an L1 monitor such as DSCOVR is so important. The key to improving the long lead time forecasts is determining the strength and direction of the magnetic field that will interact with the Earth’s magnetic field as early as possible,” Biesecker said.

He also noted NOAA was also interested in the Sunjammer mission to fly some basic instruments closer to the Sun with a solar sail (by a factor of two over the L1 distance). It was slated to launch along with DSCOVR but unfortunately, the project was cancelled in 2014. Sunjammer was expected to provide early warnings of potentially hazardous solar activity.

Moreover, many future projects are still awaiting implementation. There are many groups trying various techniques to determine the magnetic field using e.g. Faraday Rotation from radio observations, or using the Zeeman effect or Hanle effect from white light or infrared observations. 

However, as Biesecker said, these are still in the speculative regime of science, with many of the efforts just looking for funding, with much more that needs to be done, including showing the techniques can determine the magnetic field, before we can hope to use any of it for forecasting the influence on Earth.

So, in conclusion, is there still much to worry about when it comes to powerful solar events? It is important to note that we are currently past the maximum of the current solar cycle, which occurred in April, 2014, so will the influence of sun on Earth be less significant now?

“While solar activity such as solar flares and CME’s roughly correlate with the solar cycle, as we consider more extreme events, this correlation gets weaker. So, while we are headed towards fewer flares and CME’s on average, the likelihood of extreme events is always present. Even in the last solar cycle, the most extreme events in that cycle occurred two to four years after the maximum of the solar cycle,” Biesecker concluded.

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