What Would We Do If a 1859 Sized Solar Storm Hit Again? Scientists Asked in London

Turning all the railway signals red, disrupting power grids and telephone lines, disabling the GPS services and radio transmissions and damaging the satellite solar arrays. There are many tricks the geomagnetic storms caused by powerful solar Coronal Mass Ejections can pull. The seminar held at The Institution of Engineering and Technology in London on September 28 aimed at bringing together interested parties from the industry and academia in order to exchange knowledge and enhance understanding of these effects.

The active region 1520 which spit out an X class solar flare on July 12, seen from the Solar Dynamic Observatory (Credits: NASA).

There is no doubt the gathering was a timely one as the next solar maximum is approaching in 2013. As Professor Mike Hapgood, the chair of the meeting, noted in his opening remarks, society has never been as vulnerable to the impacts of space weather as it is today. “Whereas the turbojet Concord, retired in 2003, was quite resistant, the aircraft manufactured today are even more packed with electronic systems and therefore extremely sensitive,” Hapgood said. “The same applies to the current electric power lines that are extremely long and extensive,” he added.

Coronal Mass Ejections originate at active regions on the Sun such as sun spots. During the solar maximum, the Sun is capable of producing up to three Coronal Mass Ejections per day. When this happens, huge quantities of matter and radiation are released into space. When the ejection is directed towards the Earth, the Solar Energetic Particles interfere with the Earth’s magnetosphere and cause powerful magnetic storms.

SDO recorded this UV flash from the July 2 flare (Credits: NASA).

Dr. Stuart Eves, the Lead Mission Concepts Engineer from SSTL, explained that the satellites in Earth’s orbits are extremely vulnerable to the effects of space weather and the mitigation measures must be considered already during the design phase. However, as Eves said, any extra protective shielding of the satellite would increase its mass and therefore the launch costs. In the future, other solutions might be explored, such as an artificial magnetosphere or the use of back-up satellites.

The possibility of a solar storm as strong as the so called Carrington event in 1859 was mentioned on several occasions during the seminar. The strongest solar storm in modern history was observed and described by amateur London astronomer Richard Carrington. The event caused major disruption of telegraph services and it is believe that an equally powerful solar storm would cause havoc in today’s technology and electronics dependent society. As space weather forecast is not well developed yet, predicting an event like that is virtually impossible. An extremely powerful solar storm comparable to the one of 1859 missed the Earth by 9 days in July 2012.

The Royal Academy of Engineering recently carried out a broad study into the possible impacts such a powerful solar storm would have on various engineered systems on which the current British society depends. Even though introduced briefly by Professor Paul Cannon of the University of Birmingham, the research results were not yet made public. The report will be released in January 2013.

The importance of complex space weather forecasting was among the key requirements for future development mentioned during the seminar. Professor Richard B. Horne introduced a joint project of the British Antarctic Survey and the British Met Office which aims at developing methods for systematic radiation belt forecasting.  The call for improved forecasting was heard during the seminar not only from the representatives of satellite operators but also from the aviation companies’ representatives.

Below, learn more about the effect of solar storms:

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