Massive solar storm reaches Earth

No adverse effects but unleashed picturesque auroras

 
By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

solar stormThe largest solar storm in almost a decade swept over Earth on January 24.

The storms originate from sunspots—areas on the sun’s surface that have high magnetic activity. These flares or storms throw ionised gases or plasma towards the earth. The plasma has an electromagnetic field which, when it interacts with the earth’s magnetic field, gives rise to a solar storm. Being the largest explosion in the solar system, a storm releases as much energy as a thousand billion atom bombs bursting together. This coronal mass ejection (CME) occurred on January 23, moved at the speed of 2,200 km/second and reached the earth the next day.

The storm can knock out satellites, affecting telecommunication; power grids, causing blackouts; and disturb transport and finance systems. To avoid problems of navigation, Delta Airlines redirected at least half a dozen airplanes that were routed over the North Pole.

While the CME did not hit the earth and no adverse effects were reported, people in the Arctic saw some picturesque auroras.

Why the sun flares?

The sun’s magnetic activity goes up and down in a fairly regular 11 year cycle. The highs are full of sunspots, the lows are marked by less or no sunspots. At present, the sun is in the midst of an active phase of a solar cycle. This cycle is called the solar cycle 24; the counting began in 1755 when recording of solar sunspot activity began. According to scientific data, many solar storms are expected in the near future since the current cycle is reaching its peak. The sun is likely to reach the solar maximum in 2013.

Earlier on February 13, 2011, the sun unleashed a massive solar flare. Three more followed in a month—March 7, 9 and 19. In August 2010, the first storm of the solar cycle 24 occurred. Before this, a storm happened in December 2006.

How bad the storms can get


The good news is that these episodes of solar storms did not cause much destruction. The intensity of a solar storm depends on the direction of the plasma’s electromagnetic field. If it is parallel to the earth’s magnetic field, the charged particles cannot affect it. The bad news is that massive solar storm can cause mayhem.

Managing storms

The solar storm can:

  • Knock out satellites
  • Affect telecommunication;
  • Affect power grids
  • Cause blackouts
  • Disturb transport and finance systems
The way out:

Installation of shields to satellites and transmission lines can prevent damage from solar storms. Better monitoring of flares is also an option as satellites and grids can be shut down before a solar storm to minimise damage. The US federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, can predict occurrence of a solar storm one to three days in advance
 
The recent Japan nuclear crisis, for instance, showed how power outages can affect functioning of a nuclear power plant. The storms result in huge monetary losses too. A storm in January 1994 affected two telecommunication satellites of Canada. The first satellite recovered in a few hours but nearly US $50 million was spent to repair the second one. Airlines in the US had to alter their high altitude routes because a solar storm in October 2003 had affected high frequency communication in the country. The re-routed flights cost airline firms about US $100,000 per flight. The firms suffered similar losses during the January 2005 storm. A February 14, 2011 solar storm was mild but affected China’s shortwave radiocommunication system.

The losses can be much higher now because the world is more dependent on satellites and telecommunication. Installation of shields to satellites and transmission lines can prevent damage from solar storms. Better monitoring of flares is also an option as satellites and grids can be shut down before a solar storm to minimise damage. The US federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, can predict occurrence of a solar storm one to three days in advance. On February 6, 2011, NASA launched two spacecraft to enable constant imaging of the full solar sphere for the next eight years. It has also asked the US government for $622.3 million to study space weather in 2012.

Will India be affected?

India is relatively safe from the sun’s fury as it lies in the equatorial region where solar storms do not reach. In India, the sun is studied only for research purposes, says P K Manoharan, head of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s radio astronomy centre in Udhagamandalam in Tamil Nadu.

Technologies to counter radiation in ground-based systems are not needed, but Indian satellites could be at risk. “Exposure to flares reduces a satellite’s life as it has to move against the wind,” he says.
 

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