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When Solar Storms Attack: Space Weather and our Infrastructure

October 19, 2015

The 1859 Carrington Event, the largest geomagnetic storm in recorded history, crippled a large portion of the telegraph system at the time, with operators reporting fires created from sparking equipment. A similar event today would have a much more severe impact on our technologically dependent society.

A coronal mass ejection (CME) on June 20, 2013. CME’s can send billions of tons of particles hurtling through space, reaching Earth in just three days. Credit: NASA

On a cold night on March 13, 1989 Quebec, Canada and the surrounding areas went dark. Within 90 seconds, and without warning, six million people were left without power for nine hours, many for days. Something had knocked the international Hydro-Québec's electricity transmission system offline and no one knew what.

Occurring at the height of the Cold War, many feared the power outage and reported intense northern lights were the first stages of a nuclear strike.

Little did they know the real culprit was a massive storm from outer space.

Caused by a severe geomagnetic storm produced by our very own Sun, these storms are more common, and more hazardous, than you might think.

Sitting at the center of our solar system, the sun is a huge thermo-nuclear reactor, fusing hydrogen atoms into helium and producing million degree temperatures and intense magnetic fields. As a result, the sun is regularly bathing Earth and the rest of the solar system in a wash of energy in the forms of light, electrically charged particles and electrons, and magnetic fields.

Image of the sun’s emissions on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 from the Solar X-Ray Imager on NOAA’s GOES satellite. This image was taken just after the maximum emission of a solar flare. The eruption came from the middle of the sun and was directed directly toward Earth. Credit: NOAA

This constant stream of particles is known as solar wind. Blowing up to five million miles per hour, solar wind carries a million tons of matter into space every second. This barrage of energy can have a devastating impact on our economy, health and safety, and national security.

Auroral events can cause strong electrical currents to be driven across the surface of Earth, disrupting electrical power grids, like the Hydro-Québec's electricity transmission system, and can contribute the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines.

Streams of charged particles during geomagnetic storms can create changes in the ionosphere that can disrupt the use of high frequency radios used for search and rescue, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and even ground/air communications within the aviation industry.

An aurora is caused when charged particles from the Sun, mainly electrons and protons, interact with the upper atmosphere. Credit: NOAA

The largest geomagnetic storm in recorded history, dubbed the 1859 Carrington Event, created an aurora so bright that people in the northeastern U.S. could use it to read the newspaper at night. The storm crippled a large portion of the telegraph system at the time, with operators reporting fires created from sparking equipment.

At the time the events were noted as an oddity, however would have a much more severe impact on today’s technologically driven society.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, a solar storm of this magnitude today has the potential to cost nearly $2 trillion, disrupting telecommunications, banking systems, GPS, and the energy grid.

The estimated total U.S. population at risk of an extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of 16 days to 1-2 years.

Because of these and many more potentially devastating effects, NOAA is working hard to improve our advanced warning system for solar storms and potentially dangerous space weather.

DSCOVR, NOAA’s first deep space weather satellite, is now orbiting approximately one million miles from Earth. Credit: NOAA

On February 11 at 6:03pm (EST), NOAA launched its first deep space satellite, DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory), now orbiting approximately one million miles from Earth.

DSCOVR will maintain the nation's real-time solar wind monitoring capabilities in order to provide timely and accurate warnings for severe space weather events.

In addition, NOAA plans on launching a follow-on mission in the near future allowing for increased capabilities in monitoring and providing warnings for dangerous space weather storms.