WASHINGTON – It's doing it again – but this time the sun has begun to spew solar flares that are aimed squarely at Earth, according to scientists.
Over the weekend, a solar flare erupted from the sun's surface and hurled a wave of charged particles at Earth at speeds estimated to be some 1.8 million miles an hour.
These flares – some of which can be three to four times the size of the Earth – can create a electromagnetic pulse that can disrupt the unprotected national grid and electronics.
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The sun now is going through its 24th recorded solar storm.
The expected solar storm, called a solar storm maximum, is what the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Academy of Sciences say could reach its greatest intensity between now and 2014, with recurring solar flare attacks into 2020.
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," their study detailed the potential devastation of solar storms which began in 2012 but will reach increasing intensity well into 2014 and beyond.
This latest flare is expected to just graze earth, with its charged particles interacting with the planet's magnetic field and amplifying the northern and southern lights displays over the poles.
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Scientists are watching closely the ever-increasing flares that are coming off the sun's surface.
"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 that had recently been built across the nation, and produced spectacular aurora displays that could be seen throughout much of the Western hemisphere.
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That 1859 episode is 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 could have a more devastating impact given the greater reliance of the nation on electricity and its technology base.
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The display of aurora in 1859 occurred over a five-day period in which thousands of people, for example, in New York City had gathered on sidewalks and rooftops to watch "the heavens…arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they have been for years."
It was an aurora that New Yorkers witnessed that prompted The New York Times to tell its readers that it "will be referred to hereafter among the events which occur but once or twice in a lifetime."
According to historical records, the auroral displays from August 28 through September 4, 1859, were described as having extraordinary brilliance that was observed throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and were seen as far south as Hawaii, the Caribbean and Central America in the Northern Hemisphere and in the Southern Hemisphere as far north as Santiago, Chile. Even during the daytime when the aurora no longer was visible, its presence was felt through the effect of auroral currents, according to the NAS study.
"Magnetic observatories recorded disturbances in the Earth's field so extreme that magnetometer traces were driven off scale, and telegraph networks around the world – the 'Victorian Internet' – experienced major disruptions and outages," it said.
"The electricity which attended this beautiful phenomenon took possession of the magnetic wires throughout the country," the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported at the time, "and there were numerous side displays in the telegraph offices where fantastical and unreadable messages came through the instruments, and where the atmospheric fireworks assumed shape and substances in brilliant sparks."
Operators in a number of areas disconnected their systems from batteries and sent messages using only the current induced by the aurora.
The aurora display apparently had occurred at the peak of the sunspot cycle. At the time, scientists said the light display from the auroras was a "mysterious connection between the solar spots and terrestrial magnetism."
"We must therefore conclude," said Elias Loomis in Harper's New Monthly Magazine at the time, "that these three phenomena – the solar spots, the mean daily range of the magnetic needle and the frequency of auroras – are somehow dependent the one upon the other, or all are dependent upon a common cause."
While such a link was recognized at the time of the 1859 solar storm, the nature of these links wasn't well understood. In fact, it wouldn't be until the 1930s that the significance of their findings would be understood and the phenomena that today is called "space weather" wouldn't be fully appreciated until well into the space age.
The intensity of the storm also kept the geomagnetic field from recovering for days. The magnetic elements "remained in a state of considerable disturbance until September 5, and scarcely attained their normal state even on September 7 or 8," according to Balfour Stewart, director of the Kew Observatory near London.
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.
Less known has been the effects of solar storms on such events as the disruption of Allied radars in 1942 and the brief high-frequency communication outage experienced by Air Force One in route to China during a solar event in 1984.
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 2013 and 2014 and possibly into 2020, 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.
Breaks in defense
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 2013-2014 period that could have a major impact 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 the sun having been relatively quiet, the Earth has been in what scientists term a solar minimum. However, 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 and into 2020 could produce bursts of solar activity second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958.
This was the apparent reference to the previously mentioned Feb. 11, 1958, radio blackout that occurred across the entire United States and cut off this country from the rest of the world.
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 that exists today. However, people knew something potentially big was happening when the Northern Lights were sighted three times in Mexico.
Today, such a solar maximum would be noticed on mobile phones, ground 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.
"First, remember what sunspots are – tangled knots of magnetism generated by the sun's inner dynamo," said NSSTC's Hathaway. "A typical sunspot exists for just a few weeks. Then it decays, leaving behind a 'corpse' of weak magnetic fields.
"The top of the conveyor belt skims the surface of the sun, sweeping up the magnetic fields of old, dead sunspots," he said. "The 'corpses' are dragged down at the poles to a depth of 200,000 kilometers where the sun's magnetic dynamo can amplify them. Once the corpses, or magnetic knots, are reincarnated, or amplified, they become buoyant and float back to the surface" – hence, new sunspots.
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."
It's going to be intense
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 it terms cycle 24, which would have up to a 50 percent higher peak than 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 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 under way. It's the perfect sequence for a really big event."
The CME Raeder referred to is a coronal mass ejection which is a slower moving gathering of billions of tons of charged particles that would take days to reach the Earth's atmosphere.
Those charged particles then interact with the Earth's magnetic field to produce electromagnetic pulses of varying intensity, said to amount to trillions of watts of power, causing massive blackouts.
Once the solar storms come, they occur in three stages. However, not all of the stages occur in any given solar storm.
The first stage is high-energy sunlight which is primarily x-rays and ultraviolent light. The sunlight ionizes the Earth's upper atmosphere, causing radio communications interference. The second stage would be a radiation storm which would primarily affect astronauts.
The third stage would be the CME, or coronal mass ejection.
Sunspots are dark areas on the sun's surface that contain strong magnetic fields that are constantly shifting. According to NASA, a moderate-sized sunspot is about as large as the Earth and can come and go over a period of days or weeks.
Karen Fox of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said these CMEs are solar explosions that create electromagnetic fluctuations that in turn induce electric fluctuations at ground level that then blow out electrical transformers in power grids. The CME's particles, she said, also collide with critical electronics onboard a satellite and disrupt those systems.
Disruption to satellites, however, will not be a small thing, since the satellites provide commercial communications and also are used by the military.
At present, there are some 600 commercial satellites and more than 270 military satellites. The commercial satellites alone are worth some $75 billion and produce more than $25 billion a year in revenue or some $250 billion over the life of these satellites, according to the NAS study.
Like commercial satellites, military satellites also are susceptible to solar storms in addition to an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear attack.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, satellites, astronauts and aircraft carry highly advanced electronic components which are susceptible to the energetic charged particles and plasmas present in space.
When a satellite travels through such an environment during a geomagnetic storm, the charged particles strike the spacecraft causing various portions of it to be differentially charged, leading to damage and possibly failure of the satellite’s electronic systems.
"Furthermore, as technology has allowed spacecraft components to become smaller, their miniaturized systems have become increasingly vulnerable to the more energetic solar particles, which can cause physical damage to microchips and change software commands in satellite-borne computers," a NOAA report said.
Comparable to Hiroshima blast
To get an idea of the damaging effects of magnetic storms, NOAA said they can produce energy equivalents comparable to that released by the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.
From coronal mass ejections shooting hundreds of thousands of miles into space to million-mile-per-hour winds blowing charged particles toward Earth, the impact of solar storms can knock out very expensive satellites on which a society depends costing many more billions of dollars due to the systems that now depend on them.
The NAS study pointed to examples of services derived from commercial communications satellites. Not only are those services enormous but they provide benefits well beyond their worth.
For example, these satellites provide to populations in remote areas the news, education, entertainment, including global cell phones, satellite-to-home television and radio and distance learning.
Satellites also store registers to regional distribution centers and provide automatic inventory control and pricing feedback for a major retailer. In addition major automakers use a satellite-based private communications network to update its entire system of dealer sales, advice on new model features and provide service crews with the latest information on new car repair procedures.
In connecting businesses with their customers, satellites facilitate point-of-sale retail purchases made with credit or debit cards from convenience stores and gasoline stations to any business in which the credit or debit cards are used.
Satellites also act as a critical backup to land cable systems which are necessary to restore services during emergencies, such as earthquakes, hurricanes when land-based communications systems have been knocked out.
In addition, commercial satellites provide valuable information not only on meteorology, but include such areas as agriculture, oceanography, forestry, geology and environmental science, to name a few areas.
Besides the use of commercial satellites, the military has its own which it uses for imagery, navigation, signals intelligence, telecommunications, early warning and meteorology.
Military satellites also are used for verifying compliance with arms control treaties and in support of military operations. The satellites are the primary focus for now on military space activities and it is the Department of Defense which is responsible for protecting those U.S. spaced-based systems.
Consequently, DOD is a major user and supplier of space weather information in terms of situational awareness and forecasting and must therefore ensure the quality of its space weather systems capabilities. Within DOD, the United States Air Force is the lead organization for space weather activities. USAF uses a variety of space-based satellites operated by the Defense Meteorological Satellites Program, the Defense Support Program and the Communications/Navigation Outage Forecast System, among others.
The Global Positioning System network provides data on the total electron content of the ionosphere. There also are ground-based measurements which the USAF uses such as the Improved Solar Optical Observing Network; Radio Solar Telescope Network; and the Next Generation Ionosonde, or NEXION.
These facilities operate 24 hours a day. To meet DOD customers' need for space weather information, the USAF uses a combination of data from NOAA and its own sources.
Space weather on which the USAF is keenly interested in monitoring affects their critical missions of communications, satellite operations, space tracking and navigation. For that reason, the Air Force will want to keep a close watch on electron content in the ionosphere, the disturbance levels of the ionosphere, energetic particles, radiation and magnetic disturbances.
In analyzing and assessing space weather information, the Air Force from a security standpoint also needs to be in a position to distinguish between natural and man-made challenges to technologies and systems. It needs to determine whether disturbances are due to hardware and software failures, space weather effects or direct attacks on their monitoring systems.
In anticipation of the upcoming solar storm maximum expected over the next two years and beyond, DOD is seeking to perfect its sensor monitoring mechanisms on its space-based satellites. It especially will increase assets to observe ionospheric weather using resources from the National Science Foundation, NOAA and other international partners.
Richard Fisher, NASA heliophysicist, warns about the damages that solar flares, CME, EMP can cause to Earth.