Photos & multimedia e-Learning essay by: David Johanson Vasquez © All Rights — Second Edition
Please note: This essay is a follow-up from my chronicle on solar storm effects of the 1859 Carrington Event on an industrial era society— forward to the postmodern, microelectronic world of today. To better understand the context of this article, it’s suggested you view my introduction solar storm essay found by selecting the March 2012 archives found on the left side of this page. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (funded by the U.S. Congress) produced a landmark report in 2008 entitled “Severe Space Weather Events— Societal Impacts.” It reported how people of the 21st-century depend on advance-technology systems for daily living, The National Academy of Science stated— Electric power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.  Some leading solar researchers believe we are now due to a century-class storm.
Photo courtesy of NASA
- July 15, 2012 Aurora Borealis sighting near Everett, WA. This event was caused from an X-class solar storm, which occurred within a week of another X-class storm (X-class being the most severe classification). The 11-year solar cycle is approaching a solar maximum around 2013, this will most likely bring more intense solar storm activity.
Depending on your interpretation of the essay’s title, there is nothing new under the Sun when it comes to our neighboring star’s behavior. Since our Sun left its infancy as a protostar over 4 billion years ago, by triggering a nuclear fusion reaction and entering a main-sequence stage, its solar mechanics have maintained relatively consistent patterns. What has not remained the same is the evolution of life on Earth, in particular, our species’ development of a civilization which now is dependent on a form of energy called electricity.
The name “Aurora Borealis” was given by Galileo Galilei, in 1619 A.D., inspired from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and Boreas from the Greek name for north wind. First record siting was in 2600 B.C. in China. Collision between oxygen particles in Earth’s atmosphere with charged (ionized) particles released from the sun creates green and yellow luminous colors beginning at altitudes of 50 miles (80 kilometers). Blue or purplish-red is produced from nitrogen particles. The solar particles are attracted by the Earth’s northern and southern magnetic poles with curtains of light stretching east to west.
Reaching back only a few generations into the 20th Century, electricity was considered a luxury—today ordinary life would be impossible without it! And that’s where our beloved Sun comes into the picture, to potentially cast a shadow on our dependency of electricity. Solar storms have been a reoccurring event before time began, but they didn’t affect people outside of providing a fantastic, special effects light-show until a critical event happened in 1859.
In the mid 19th century, while the industrial revolution was near full development, the resource of electric power was first harnessed. Shortly after the electricity was put into use for communication using telegraph technology (a 19th century equivalent of the Internet), is when the Sun revealed a shocking surprise in the most powerful solar storm ever recorded, which was known as the Carrington Event.
The year 1859 was near a peak in the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle, when the Sun’s polarity readies for reversal. Approaching the end sequence of this magnetic shift, brings a solar maximum , which produces violent solar flares and ejects plasma clouds outwards into space. If the flare occurs in a region opposite of Earth, a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) may send a billion-ton radiation storm towards our planet. Fortunately, the Earth is protected by a robust atmosphere and a magnetic field surrounding the globe, which protects us from most solar winds. However, an intense solar storm with its charged plasma cloud can overwhelm our planet’s protective shields. When an extreme solar storm’s magnetic energy contracts with our planet’s protective magnetic field, it creates geomagnetic induced currents (GICs). GICs are massive amounts of electromagnetic energy which travel through the ground and ocean water, seeking the path of least resistance in power lines, pipelines and rail tracks.
In the extreme solar storm of 1859, the Aurora Borealis was seen near the equator and it was reported people were able to read newspapers outdoors at midnight. Navigational compasses (19th century version of GPS) throughout the world spun-out-of-control due to the flux of electromagnetic energy.
A more recent, dramatic example of a solar storm’s impact is the 1989, Quebec-Power blackout. The geomagnetic storm created was much milder than the solar maxim of the 1859, Carrington Event. However, it’s a chilling preview of what a complex, unprotected electrical grid faces when up against the forces of the super solar storm. Quebec-Power’s large transformers were fried by the GICs overloading its grid network. Electrical grids and power-lines act like a giant antenna in pulling in the massive flow of geomagnetic energy. In the 1989 solar storm incident, over 6 million people lost power in Eastern Canada and the U.S., with additional connecting power grids on the verge of collapsing. Again, the powerful 1989 solar disturbance was not the 100 year super storm, but a small preview of what can if preparations are made to protect the power grid.
Solar scientist are finally able to put together how extreme storms follow an 11 year solar maxim cycle, like the one we’re now entering, and should peak sometime in 2013. Already this year, six major X-class solar storms, the most intense type, have occurred since January. Within one week of July, we had two of the X-class storms, with the last one pointing directly at Earth. On July 13, 2012, the Washington Post’s Jason Sometime, wrote an article with his concerns on how NASA and NOAA were sending out inconsistent warnings about the solar storm from July 12.
The federal agency FEMA, appears to have learned its’ lesson from Hurricane Katrina and being proactive with a series of super solar storm scenarios. These scenarios illustrate the many challenges towards maintaining communication and electric power, based on the strength of the solar event. Without reliable power, food distribution will be problematic. Today we have less reliance on large warehouse inventories and more dependency on — “just in time” food delivery. According to Willis Risk Solutions (industrial underwriter insurer for electric utilities) and Lloyds World Specialist Insurer (formerly LLoyds of London), there’s a global shortage of industrial large electric transformer, which now are only made in a few countries. It would take years to replace the majority of the World’s electric transformers and technically require massive amounts of electric power, which ironically, would not be available in an event of an extreme geomagnetic storm.
Select companies and the federal agencies mentioned in this essay, are overall, considered highly respected and cautious in forecasting major threats to societies and national economies. All of the mentioned government entities and scientific organizations realize it’s not a matter if, but when will the next super solar storm be aimed and sent to Earth.
The good news is we can still take the necessary precautions to protect our society and the economic future from this clear and present threat. Here’s a link to the 2008 National Academy of Science (funded by congress) report: Severe Weather—Understanding Societal and Economic Impact: A Workshop Report (2008). This group meets every year to work on preventative strategies. The report contains cost-effective protection plans for electric power grids, please see the link provided.
Chronicles of the largest solar and geomagnetic storms in the last 500 years.
1847 — First geomagnetic storm caused by a solar flare, which inadvertently was documented using emerging telegraph technology. Reports were the telegraph system was sending clearer signals by disconnecting its batteries and using the geomagnetic energy from the storm. First published effects caused from geomagnetic storm.
1859 — Becomes known as the Carrington Event; telegraph system becomes inoperable worldwide as some offices are set on fire from supercharge telegraph wire. This is the largest geomagnetic storm in 500 years. Scientists begin documenting future solar storm activity.
1921 — Know as the “Great Storm” worldwide telegraphs and radio signals become inoperable and cables are burned out. This geomagnetic storm is likely to occur approximately 100 years.
1989 — Major solar flare erupts on the surface of the Sun opposite of Earth; a resulting solar storm triggers a massive geomagnetic storm, which overwhelms Quebec’s power grid. As a result of the storm, six million people instantly lose power as a U.S. Northeast and Midwest connecting grids come within seconds of the collapse. As a result, the Canadian government becomes proactive and develops strategies to protect its power grid from future solar storms.
2003 — Know as the “Halloween Storms” this series of geomagnetic storms disrupted GPS, blocked High Frequency (HF) radio and triggered emergency procedures at various nuclear power plants. In Scandinavia and South Africa, section of power grids were hit hard, as many large power transformers were destroyed by the powerful geomagnetic induced currents (GICs).
Chronological Reports and News Accounts of Solar Storms From 1859 to 2003
This is one of the most comprehensive list of solar storm accounts on the web. The site chronicles strange solar storm happenings; such as reports in the early 1960s with TV programs suddenly disappearing and reappearing in other regions. Other unsettling reports include the U.S. being cut off from radio communication from the rest of the world during a geomagnetic storm. Please see link below: http://www.solarstorms.org/SRefStorms.html
Solar Storm Acronyms and Terms
ACE — Advance Compositional Explore = NASA satellite used in detecting and monitoring potential damaging solar flares and CMEs.
AC — alternating current
BPS — bulk power system
CME — coronal mass ejection = caused from a solar flare near the surface of the sun, which sends a billion-ton radiation storm out into space.
EHV — extra high voltage
FERC — United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
GIC — geo-magnetic induced current = an extreme solar storm’s magnetic energy contracts with our planet’s protective magnetic field, creating electric current which conducts or travels through the ground or ocean water.
GMD — geo-magnetic disturbance
GAO — Government Accounting Office
GPS — global positioning system = A series of satellites positioned in an Earth, geostationary orbit for use in military and civilian navigation
NERC — North American Electric Reliability Corporation
NASA — National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NOAA — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
POES — Polar Operational Environmental Satellite
SEP — solar energetic particle
SOHO — Solar and Heliosphere Observatory (satellite)
STDC — Solar Terrestrial Dispatch Center (Canada)
STEREO — Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (Satellite)
Sources and Links
Illustration courtesy of NASA
A useful illustration for understanding NASA’s efforts with Heliophysics System Observatory
Detail explanation of space weather and NASA monitoring can be found at the following link: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/spaceweather/index.html
NOAA Solar storm monitors sites:
NOAA is the nation’s official source of space weather alerts, monitoring and alerts.
The following NOAA site provides real time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events. http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/