WASHINGTON – The massive sunspot identified as AR1654, which is spewing solar flares, has scientists saying that a portion of a coronal mass ejection is expected to brush Earth’s magnetic field, creating what observers say are bright auroras around the Arctic Circle.
Already, scientists say, the CME’s arrival on the solar winds is creating auroras arcing across the skies of northern Scandinavia.
Scientists from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration say this reveals the potential for a solar storm maximum as the sun approaches the height of its latest 11-year cycle this year and next.
Flares are expected to continue into 2020.
Scientists at these space-watch agencies say that if Earth gets a direct hit from one of these solar flares – some of which can be up to four times the size of Earth – the damage could be enormous.
The United States alone would sustain damages up to $2 trillion the first year to the nation’s electric grid-dependent critical infrastructures. In addition, it could leave some 160 million people – more than half the population of the United States – starving because of the collapse of food and fuel delivery systems.
In addition, it could take from four to 10 years to recover.
They say they would expect high casualties because of America’s dependence on electric power, electronics and digital telecommunications and information networks.
Further, there are thousands of so-called SCADAs – Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Data systems, or automated control systems – which control large sections of industry and commerce.
All of these systems are vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy for which solar flares are but one source. Another source would be from a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
Other forms of electromagnetic energy include gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, visible light, infrared radiation, microwaves and radio waves.
SCADAs are referred to as the “ubiquitous robots of the modern age” and are vital to the interdependence of the critical infrastructures that comprise modern society.
According to the congressionally mandated 2008 EMP commission, these automated control systems and their mutual interdependence are two of the most important aspects of America’s modern infrastructures. They pose the greatest vulnerability in all of the country’s infrastructures.
The SCADA systems are especially used in such critical infrastructure applications as electrical transmission and distribution, water management, and oil and gas pipelines.
America is crisscrossed with thousands of miles of pipelines, and if a SCADA were to fail, it could cause explosions in natural gas pipelines and serious leakage.
“The magnetic canopy of sunspot AR 1654 is in a state of unrest, relentlessly shifting, reconnecting and crackling with minor flares,” according to a report from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Scientists described this magnetic canopy as exhibiting eruptions that looked like “flash bulbs at a rock concert.”
“The sunspot’s magnetic field, illuminated by the extreme (Ultra-Violet) glow of hot plasma and flares, has a ‘beta-gamma-delta’ configuration,” NASA said. “That means it harbors energy for power X-class eruptions.”
Scientists said the “behemoth” sunspot AR 1654 stretches some 112,000 miles, the equivalent of 14 Earth diameters from end to end.
The flares could create M-class flares and a “risk” of X-class flares, the biggest there are, the scientists said.
NOAA rates the flares as A-class, followed by C, M and X, which is the most severe. A-class is the smallest and, like a Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. X-class is 10 times an M-class and 100 times a C-class.
These solar flares are giant explosions on the sun’s surface that send electromagnetic energy in high-speed particles into space.
A C-class storm and smaller flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth. M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts at the poles and minor radiation storms that could endanger astronauts.
But the highest risk from such solar storms will be to the national electrical grid system.
The resulting power surges from solar particles could blow out huge transformers which take a long time to replace, even under normal circumstances. In addition, such large transformers no longer are made in the United States but come from abroad. Private utilities do not keep spares of these large transformers due to their tremendous cost.
The situation would be especially precarious for the nation if hundreds would be destroyed, and need replacement, all at once.
NASA estimates that if Earth had a direct hit from a solar flare, the U.S. could lose some 350 such large transformers which would take years to replace.
In spite of the historical knowledge of these various storms over the years, NASA said that the nation’s electric power grids remain vulnerable to disruption and damage by severe space weather and have become even more so in terms of both widespread blackouts and permanent equipment damage requiring long periods of time to restore.
The reason is that electric power and more intricate and sophisticated electronics are the cornerstone of a modern society. This technology is the basis on which all other infrastructures and services depend.
“Collateral effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration,” according to NASA. “The resulting loss of services for a significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international impacts as well.”
According to NOAA, geomagnetic storms not only affect electrical transmission equipment, damage transformers and transmission lines but can leave entire grids without power. In oil and gas pipelines, rapidly fluctuating geomagnetic fields can induce currents into the pipelines. Once that occurs, flow meters in the pipeline can transmit false flow information.
This in turn could lead to a buildup of tremendous pressure that could cause explosions in the pipeline and fires.
With new, more sophisticated technologies being used in more complicated systems, space weather will become all the more important to monitor, predict and prepare for its consequences.