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Space weather threatens high-tech life

Shortly after 4 am on a cloudless September morning in 1859, the sky over the present Colorado broke out in bright red and green colors. Blinded by the brightness of thinking that it was an early morning, gold diggers woke up in the mountainous region of the then Kansas Territory and started making breakfast. What happened in more developed regions was even more confusing and warns of the wired high-tech world of the 21st century.

When the sky shone over the night side of the earth, the telegraph systems worldwide became berserk and cluttered nonsense code and emit large sparks that ignited fires near paper stacks stacking. Telegraph operators suffered electrical burns. Even if one disconnected the telegraph units from their power sources, the rage did not stop because the transmission lines themselves carried large electrical currents. Modern technology had just been humiliated by a violent space weather storm coming from the sun, the largest ever recorded ̵

1; and more than twice as strong as a storm nine years earlier, which was itself the largest in known history.

My seven-year solar storm prediction research, combined with my decades using GPS satellite signals under various solar storm conditions, shows that even the more sensitive electronics and satellites would be destroyed should an event of this magnitude recur. In 2008, a group of experts commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences published a detailed report with a sobering conclusion: the world would be thrown back into the life of the early nineteenth century and it would take years – or even a decade – for itself to recover from an event that's big.

A Solar Blast

Space weather storms have happened since the birth of the solar system and hit the Earth many times, both before and after the tremendous 1859 event, which was named after a British astronomer, the Carrington Event, who drew his observations of the Sun. at the time. They are caused by huge electromagnetic explosions on the surface of the sun, called coronal mass ejections. Each explosion sends billions of protons and electrons out in a superheated plasma sphere into the solar system.

About 1 in 20 coronal mass ejections fights in a direction that cuts the Earth's orbit. About three days later, our planet experiences a space weather storm or a geomagnetic storm.

While these events are described using terms such as "weather" and "storm," they do not affect whether it is rainy or sunny, hot or cold, or other aspects of how it is outside on a particular day. Their effects are not meteorological, but only electromagnetic.

Aurors are signs of a geomagnetic storm
NASA / Terry Zaperach

Hitting Earth

When coronal mass ejection arrives on Earth, the charged particles collide with air molecules in the upper atmosphere, producing heat and light, called the Aurora.

However, when moving electric charges meet a magnetic field, the interaction creates a spontaneous electric current in each available conductor. When the plasma ball is large enough, its interaction with the Earth's magnetic field can induce large currents on long wires on the ground, such as the 1859 overloaded telegraph circuit.

On March 13, 1989, a storm that was only about one-fifth as strong as the Carrington event hit Earth. It caused a large surge in the long power lines of the Hydro Quebec power grid, damaging the transmission equipment and leaving 6 million people without power for nine hours. Another storm-induced surge destroyed a large transformer in a nuclear power plant in New Jersey. Although a replacement transformer was nearby, it took another six months to remove and replace the molten unit. Some people feared that the bright Northern Lights triggered a nuclear war.

And in October 2003, a rapid series of solar storms hit Earth. Called together the Halloween Sunstorm, this series caused surges that threatened the North American power grid. Its impact on satellites made the GPS navigation during the peak of the storm to irregular and broken communication links.

Greater storms will have broader impact, causing more damage and taking longer to recover.

Far-reaching effects

Geomagnetic storms attack the lifeblood of modern technology: electricity. Space weather typically lasts for two or three days, during which the entire planet is exposed to strong electromagnetic forces. The National Academy of Sciences study concluded that a particularly violent storm would damage and close urban power grids and communications networks worldwide.

The electricity shown on the top right is integrated into every aspect of modern life.
Federal Communications Commission

After the storm was over, there was no easy way to restore power. Production plants that build replacements for burned-out lines or power transformers have no power themselves. Trucks, which are needed for the supply of raw materials and finished equipment, could also refuel: Gas pumps run with electricity. And which pumps were running would dry out soon, because electricity also runs the machinery that extracts oil from the ground and refines it into usable fuel.

If the transport faltered, the food would not get into the shops from the farms. Even systems that, like the public water supply, do not appear to be technological, would be shut down: their pumps and cleaning systems need electricity. People in developed countries would find themselves without running water, without sewage systems, without refrigerated food and without the ability to transport food or other things from far away. People in areas with a more basic economy would also be supplied remotely without need.

It could take anywhere from four to ten years to repair any damage. In the meantime, people would have to grow their own food, find and carry water, cook water and cook meals over the fire.

Some systems would of course continue to work: bicycles, horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships. But another type of equipment that would continue to function provides a clue to prevent this type of disaster: electric cars would continue to work, but only in places where solar cells and wind turbines recharge them.

Preparing and Protecting [19659005] Geomagnetic storms would affect these small-scale facilities far less than grid-sized systems. It is a fundamental principle of electricity and magnetism that the longer a wire is exposed to a moving magnetic field, the greater the current induced in that wire.

In 1859, the telegraph system was so severely affected because it had wires from city to city across the US. These very long wires suddenly had to cope with enormous amounts of energy and failed. Today, there are long cables that connect power generators to consumers – from Niagara Falls to New York City, for example – which are similarly susceptible to large induced currents.

The only way to reduce the susceptibility to geomagnetic storms is to fundamentally revise the grid. Now it's a huge network of wires spanning continents. Governments, businesses and communities need to work together to divide them into much smaller components, each serving a city or perhaps even a neighborhood – or a single house. These "microgrids" can be interconnected, but should contain protective devices that allow them to be quickly disconnected during storms. In this way, the length of the wires affected by the storm is shortened and the damage potential is reduced.

A family using solar panels and batteries for storage and an electric car to move would probably be disturbed by their water supply, natural gas or Internet service. But their freedom to travel and use electric lights to work after dark would provide a much better chance of survival.

When will the next storm arrive?

People should start preparing today. It's impossible to know when a big storm is coming next: Most of all, we'll get a three-day warning when something happens on the surface of the sun. It really is only a matter of time before there is another such as the Carrington event.

Solar astrophysicists are also studying the sun to identify events or conditions that could signal coronal mass ejection. They collect vast amounts of data about the sun and use computer analysis to try to connect this information to geomagnetic storms on Earth. This work is underway and will be refined over time. Research has not yet provided a reliable prediction of an impending solar storm before ejection occurs, but it is improving every year.

In my opinion, the safest procedure is the development of microgrids based on renewable energies. Not only would this improve the quality of life for people around the world, but it would also be the best way to maintain that lifestyle when adverse events happen.

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