Fingers Crossed As Massive Sun Spot Points At Earth

This is the sun as it is was just before this blog was posted. You can see the sunspot just below and to the left of the disk. The image is from NASA's Solar Dynamics Laboratory spacecraft with its Atmospheric Imaging Assemby (AIA) instrument. Courtesy: NASA.

This is the sun as it is was just before this blog was posted. You can see the huge sunspot just below and slightly to the left of the centre of disk. Active Region 12192, as it is known has caused US scientists to declare a “Major Flare Watch” alert.  The image is from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Laboratory spacecraft with its Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument. Courtesy: NASA.

 

Keep your fingers crossed for the next few days.

A massive growing belching sunspot that has been firing off solar flares in all directions is slowly coming round to point at the Earth bringing with it the risk of a major solar flare hurling billions of tonnes of super heated star stuff straight at us – causing radio blackouts, power cuts and, possibly, much worse disruption down here on Earth.

This giant sunspot is the largest active region that has been seen on the sun during the current solar cycle and it has been growing bigger and increasingly more active. It now has a diameter the size of the giant planet Jupiter and is clearly visible on the solar disk at sunset. This sunspot has triggered US scientists to declare a “Major Flare Watch” alert.

Since the week began, this sunspot, known as AR12192, has produced 40-odd solar flares and they have been getting progressively more powerful. Fortunately, none of these have sent a blast of solar material – known as a coronal mass ejection (CME) – our way. The primary effect of the flares has been to ionize Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing a series of short-lived high-frequency radio communications blackouts that may have affected specialist radio services but will have passed by most of us unnoticed.

Solar flares are classed in various categories with an X-class being the most powerful, M-class being the next tier down and C-class being weaker. This week AR12192 has produced 27 C-class solar flares, eight M-class flares, and two categorised as X-class – X-class flares are the ones to worry about. An X-class flare from sunspot AR12192 blasting a coronal mass ejection at Earth over the next few days would almost certainly not go unnoticed by those of us on the ground.

The true size of the the active solar region can be seen at the wavelength of 131 Angstroms.

The true size of the the active solar region can be seen at the wavelength of 131 Angstroms. Courtesy: NASA.

Solar storms

Solar storms begin with an explosion, or solar flare, on the surface of the sun. The X-rays and extreme ultraviolet radiation from the flare reach the Earth’s orbit eight minutes later – travelling at light speed. These can ionize the upper layers of our atmosphere causing radio blackouts and GPS satellite navigation errors. A short time later, a wave of energetic particles, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast, and moving only slightly slower than light itself, would reach Earth. These can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the coronal mass ejections, the billion-tonne clouds of magnetized plasma blasted out by the flare that take a day or more to cross space and reach us. These are what do the real damage.

This high speed star stuff, in the form of electrically charged sub-atomic particles, would tear through space at 3,000 kilometers per second, hitting the Earth’s atmosphere some 18 hours or so after the flare, ripping through Earth’s magnetic field, twisting and buckling it and causing what is known as a geomagnetic storm.

Yesterday's x-1.6 flare from Active Region 12192 as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Courtesy: NASA.

Yesterday’s (22 October 2014) X-1.6 category flare from Active Region 12192 as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Courtesy: NASA.

Severe geomagnetic storms caused by CMEs can induce large currents through the conducting wires in electrical systems such as power grids, pipelines and signalling circuits. In simple terms, they can fry electrical components including the powerful transformers that keep our power grids running. High levels of geomagnetically induced currents can damage equipment in electricity networks, potentially leading to power failure, according to the UK government’s National Risk Register.

So, a sufficiently powerful geomagnetic storm could result in radio blackouts, power-cuts and widespread damage to heavy equipment such as transformers across much of the industrialised world; damage that would cost billions of dollars and take years to fully repair.

Do not think this is fanciful. The most severe geomagnetic storm that has hit Earth during the space age led to the collapse of a power grid in Canada leaving 6 million people without electricity on 13 March 1989. There have been others. A much smaller solar storm in 2003 interrupted the operation of satellites and caused the GPS system used by airlines to go offline for approximately a day. Records from solar storms in 1921 and 1960 describe widespread radio disruption and impacts upon railway signalling and switching systems.

US agency NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center says "stay tuned".

US agency NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center says “stay tuned”.

Lucky escape

On 23 July 2012, an eruption, that was at least twice as powerful as the 1989 solar storm, exploded on the face of the sun and blasted a stream of material into space that narrowly missed our planet. Had this event happened just one week earlier then Earth would have been directly in the line of fire and, as one expert put it, “we would still be picking up the pieces”.

“Had the event hit the Earth, it would have produced a record geomagnetic storm,” reported an international team of space scientists in a paper published in Nature Communications earlier this year.

“Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps,” states NASA in a report on the 2012 near-miss. According to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact to the US alone of a solar storm of the size of the 2012 event would exceed $2 trillion – or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina.

Sunspot AR12192 is bigger and more active than the region that triggered the solar storm that narrowly missed the Earth in July 2012. Our world had a lucky escape a couple of years ago. And, so far, we have been lucky with AR12192. Let’s hope our luck holds out for the next few days.

Sources

See near real-time imagery of the sun here.

NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center here.

NASA report on the solar super storm near miss of 2012 here.

NASA video on the 2012 near miss here.

Nature Communications paper on the 2012 event here.

Space Weather paper on probability of large solar storm events here.

Paper based on conference presentation on space weather anomalies, power grid collapse and nuclear safety which discusses the potential damage that solar storms would cause to nuclear power stations here.

SolarMax executive summary presentation including the 2015 scenario here.

SolarMax full report here.

ORNL, 2010 (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), “Electromagnetic Pulse: Effects on the U.S. Power Grid” here.

UK National Risk register here.

Canadian Nuclear safety Commission fact sheet here.

Britain’s Office for Nuclear regulation report on external hazards here.

US NAS report here.

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