WASHINGTON – It was in January 1994 that two Canadian telecommunications satellites blanked out during a major sunburst while in geosynchronous orbit and communications were disrupted nationwide.
While recovery occurred after only a few hours on the first satellite, it took some six months and more than $70 million to recover the second satellite.
Then in January 2005, some 26 United Airlines flights had to be diverted during a space weather storm to non-polar routes – to avoid the prospect of high frequency radio blackouts.
Added were landings and takeoffs, flight time and other factors that elevated fuel consumption and costs. Each route change ended up costing more than $100,000.
Then in February 2011, there was a sun eruption experts described as the largest solar flare in four years. It caused interference in radio communications and global positioning system signals for aircraft traveling long-distances.
While it was a modest outburst, experts say it signaled the beginning of an upcoming solar storm.
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration along with the National Academy of Sciences is predicting that the Earth could be subjected to a solar storm maximum as part of the sun’s 11-year cycle.
If there is a direct hit, these agencies say that the impact could be catastrophic.
They say, brace yourself, it could cost upwards of $2 trillion in the first two years, affecting some 160 million people and could take anywhere from four to 10 years to recover.
“The sun has an activity cycle, much like hurricane season,” said Tom Bogdan, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. “It’s been hibernating for four or five years, not doing much of anything.”
What scientists have known for about two centuries is that disruptions occur in varying degrees of intensity about every 11 years. The problem is that they haven’t been able to figure out the size of any future solar super storm, although models have been developed that make suggestions.
The expected solar storm, called a solar storm maximum, is what NASA and the NAS expect sometime over the next 24 months.
In an in-depth, 132-page report funded by NASA and issued by the NAS entitled “Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Economic and Societal Impact,” a 2008 study detailed the potential devastation of solar storms beginning during the 2012-2014 period.
There’s already been a warning. In late January 2012, the sun unleashed what scientists said was a charged plasma that space weather watchers said would just miss Earth – that time.
“Our simulations show potential to pack a good punch to Earth’s near-space environment,” said Antti Pulkkinen of the Space Weather Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. The plasma blast, Pulkkinen said, was “more of a glancing blow.”
For that January occurrence, satellite operators and power companies were alerted. Even though it bypassed Earth, some communications were affected, especially at high latitudes.
NASA estimates that the impending solar storm maximum could perhaps be even more powerful than the one recorded back in 1859 that had the effect at the time of a massive disruption of the fledging telegraph system. Then, it produced spectacular aurora displays that could be seen throughout much of the Western hemisphere.
The 1859 solar storm was called the Carrington Event, named after the British Astronomer Richard Carrington who saw the effects of the solar storm and was the first to link sun activities with the Earth’s geomagnetic disturbances.
NASA experts say that the size of the impending solar storm maximum will be at least as big as the 1859 Carrington Event. But they say it could have a much greater impact because of contemporary society’s heavy reliance on electricity.
Drawing from the lessons of the 1859 Carrington Event and subsequent instances of solar storms, it is apparent the damage it can cause electric power grids, judging from the effects on the ‘Victorian Internet” at the time. Such storms also may contribute to the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines.
These storms also interfere with high-frequency, very high-frequency and ultra high-frequency radio communications and navigation signals from GPS satellites. The collateral effects of space-weather-driven technology failures can include complete blackouts of high-frequency communications along transpolar aviation routes, requiring aircraft flying these routes to divert to lower latitudes.
In comparing various solar storm events, the 1859 event still looms as the largest, even greater than those experienced since the dawn of the Space Age.
In looking at potential events between 2012 and 2014, solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center, of NASA, said that the magnetic belts of the sun have begun to turn very fast. He said that many magnetic fields are being swept up and that a future sunspot cycle is going to be very intense.
Underlying this concern is what scientists also determined are major breaks in the Earth’s solar defenses, caused by the recent discovery of a thick layer of solar particles inside the Earth’s magnetic field.
To scientists, discovery of this thick layer of solar particles inside the Earth’s magnetic field strongly suggests that Earth could experience serious solar storms in the 2012-2014 with major impacts on civilization’s electrical power sources.
“The sequence we’re expecting … is just right to put particles in and energize them to create the biggest geomagnetic storms, the brightest auroras, the biggest disturbances in Earth’s radiation belts,” said David Sibeck of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
“So, if all of this is true, it should be that we’re in for a tough time in the next 11 years,” Sibeck said.
Recent data from NASA’s THEMIS satellite has revealed a 6,437-kilometer, or 4,000-mile, thick layer of solar particles have accumulated and continue to gather within the outermost part of the magnetosphere, which is a protective bubble created by Earth’s magnetic field.
The magnetosphere is supposed to block these solar particles – also referred to as solar winds – which leave the sun at a million miles an hour, experts say.
“The solar wind is constantly changing, and the Earth’s magnetic field is buffeted like a wind sock in gale-force winds, fluttering back and forth in response to the solar wind,” Sibeck said.
With expected increased activity with a solar storm maximum, the reaction in the magnetosphere could be quite dramatic.
This prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is headquartered in Boulder, Colo.
NCAR is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In turn, the UCAR is a consortium of more than 75 universities nationwide offering post-graduate studies in atmospheric and related sciences.
“The next sunspot cycle will be 30 percent to 50 percent stronger than the previous one,” Dikpati said. If this is true, then scientists believe a solar storm maximum expected between 2013 and 2014 could produce bursts of solar activity second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958.
During the event in 1958, a radio blackout ccurred across the entire United States and cut off the country from the rest of the world. This happened during the Cold War period and when fires developed in Europe, some people wondered whether war had broken out again.
This solar maximum also occurred during the beginning of the Space Age. Sputnik had been launched in October 1957 and the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, was launched in January 1958.
At the time, there wasn’t the sophisticated means of measuring solar activity. However, people knew something potentially big was happening when the Northern Lights were seen three times in Mexico.
Today, such a solar maximum would be noticed on mobile phones, global positioning systems, from weather satellites and the potential effects on the electronics that are so much a part of everyday life.
Dikpati’s assessment for the next 11 years is based on what she says is a conveyor belt on the sun. It is similar to ocean conveyor belt on Earth, except the conveyor belt on the sun is a current of electrically conducting gas.
According to Dikpati, it flows from the sun’s equator to the poles and back again. Just as the great ocean conveyor belt determines Earth’s weather, the solar conveyor belt affects weather on the sun by controlling the sunspot cycle.
Hathaway said this conveyor belt effect takes some 40 years for the belt to complete one loop.
“The speed varies anywhere from a 50-year pace – considered slow – to a 30-year pace, which is considered fast.”
Hathaway said that when the belt is turning fast, a considerable number of magnetic fields are being swept up and that a future sunspot cycle is going to be intense.
“The belt was turning fast in 1986 to 1996,” Hathaway said.
Dikpati and her NCAR team are looking to predict what they call cycle 24, which would have up to a 50 percent higher peak than the previous cycle, 23. While some models have stated that cycle 24 would be smaller than cycle 23, Dikpati said that her “flux transport dynamo model” has correctly forecast the relative peaks of cycles 16-23 going back to the 1921 event using sunspot area data from previous cycles.
A computer-simulated magnetic flux NCAR scientists used to conduct their analysis in 2010 went back to the 12th cycle, which put solar activity around the year 1880. While that wasn’t as significant, the most dramatic was the 1958 event referred to earlier by Dikpati, based on simulated computer modeling. It is the 1958 event that cycle 24 could begin to match in intensity.
The solar storm maximum of cycle 24 is expected between 2013 and 2014. Not stopping there, Dikpati and her team continued simulations to the year 2020, showing solar peaks until then approximating the peaks for cycle 24.
Dikpati and her team base the confidence of their analysis on forecasting the previous eight cycles from surface sunspot area data for preceding cycles.
“We’re entering solar cycle 24,” said University of New Hampshire scientist Jimmy Raeder in forecasting what could be described as an upcoming Perfect Storm.
“For reasons not fully understood, CMEs [sun flares] in even-numbered solar cycles – like cycle 24 – tend to hit Earth with a leading edge that is magnetized north. Such a CME should open a breach and load the magnetosphere with plasma just before the storm gets underway. It’s the perfect sequence for a really big event.”