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September 15, 2014

Did You Know That Earth Just Missed A Catastrophic Solar Storm By A Hair’s Breadth?

Yesterday, I received an e mail from a friend Columban priest-ecologist and Global Justice Awardee, Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC. I was stunned by what he wrote. It was the first time I heard about the solar storm. Immediately, I researched on the topic and learned more about it. In fact, just recently, a relatively strong solar storm just threatened the earth. While this recent event was considered more as a visual satisfaction due to the beautiful aurora it created, scientists are unanimous that strong solar storms would bring immeasurable destructions on earth. Here is the email:

“Unknown to most of us, on July 23, 2012, the earth narrowly missed, by one week, a massive solar super-storm which could have done enormous damage to global communications and electrical grids and, as a consequence, created havoc across the globe. The solar storm was caused by a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections. These intense eruptions from the sun’s surface, which are also known as solar flares, sent huge pulses of magnetized plasma at a speed of 2,000 kilometers per second hurtling out into space. This was four times as fast as a typical magnetic storm. This storm was powerful because it was caused by at least two nearly simultaneous coronal mass ejections. An ejection four days earlier had cleared away materials that might have slowed down the eruption. With the barrier cleared away the magnetic cloud could work its way up to a very high speed. Another reason why this storm would have done huge damage is that it had a southward magnetic orientation which would have merged violently with planet Earth’s northward magnetic field.”

If this event had happened a mere nine days earlier, it would have hit the earth and caused mayhem right across the globe. Computers, satellite transmissions, GPS navigation systems, television, radio broadcasts, hospital equipment, sanitation systems and other technologies which depend on electricity would have been destroyed or disabled. According to Dr. Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado ‘if the coronal mass ejection (CME) had hit the Earth, it would have disabled everything that plugs into a wall socket.’ (Maeve Kennedy, ‘Extreme solar storm’ could have pulled the plug on Earth, The Guardian, July 25th 2014).   Electric pumps in water and sewage plants would have been destroyed, causing massive disruption and, possibly, disease.

solar storm

The cost to the world would have run into billions, if not trillions of dollars and it would have taken years, if not decades, to repair the damage. We were lucky that the Earth and the other planets were on the other side of the Sun when the eruption took place.

While it is true that such powerful solar storms are rare, they do happen and, at this moment in time, scientists are as unable to predict when they will happen as they are unable to predict when earthquakes will happen. Dr. Barker and his colleagues from NASA published a study of the storm entitled A major solar eruptive event in July 2012 in the December 2013 issue of the journal Space Weather (Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012). One of the reasons why Dr. Baker learned so much about this event is that the July 2013 storm hit a solar observatory called STEREO-A which is equipped to measure the parameters of such a solar event.

We do know that in 1859 the Earth was hit by such a solar superstorm which knocked out the telephone system right across the United States. The intense magnetic storm ignited the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. Normal geomagnetic storms which produce the Northern Lights are only found around the Arctic Circle. That storm was observed by the English astronomer Richard Carrington who actually saw the instigating flare with his own eyes. During the following days a series of powerful Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) hit the Earth.   Such major solar storms are now called Carrington events.

In more recent times, a small magnetic event collapsed Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid and left 6 million people without electricity for up to nine hours. Two factors exacerbated the problem. The first was the unusual geology of Quebec which sits on a large rock shield. This prevented the current flowing through the earth. The second was the utility’s very long power transmission lines which facilitated the flow of electricity along the 35 kV power lines.

Since then the company has been forced to implement various strategies, including raising the trip level and upgrading various monitoring and operational procedures. Other utilities in North America and Northern Europe and elsewhere have implemented programs to reduce the risks associated with geomagnetically induced currents.

Nevertheless, if a major Carrington event occurred within the next few years what impact would that have on the 410 nuclear power plants which were in operation on January 1st 2014? We know what happened when electric power was cut off at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, first by the earthquake and then by the tsunami. Three of the reactors went into meltdown. It will take 50 years do decontaminate the site. More than three years later 120,000 people are living in temporary accommodation. Unless all the nuclear reactors are stress-tested against a massive CME we could be facing a global catastrophe.”

And I thought these phenomena were only true in movies! Let us pray and hope that the Earth will continue to be free from these catastrophes and we do not create things which will make it worse for us.


Photo credit: Solar Storm Software

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