Solar Abnormality: Assessing The Potential For Future Calamity
Sometimes I craft a writeup knowing in advance that it’s going to be popular with my blog readership. Sometimes I over-estimate the resulting interest in it. And sometimes, a piece ends up being far more wildly popular than I predict beforehand. The latter scenario was definitely the case with ‘2012: The Year Of Looming Solar Disaster, When Civilization Devolves?‘ back in May of 2009, which I wrote subsequent to perusing an article in Wired Magazine.
Here’s the brief summary of the premise:
- Solar flares’ EMI effects are more pronounced when the Earth’s geomagnetic field is aligned with that of the Sun, due to a ‘leak’ in the Earth’s shield in such an orientation
- The in-progress solar cycle is in fact one in which alignment is the case
- Potential impacts of an intense solar storm include crippling damage to the ultra-high voltage transformers which create the backbone of this and other countries’ power distribution networks
My writeup ended up being one of the top five of the year, as measured by the traffic it generated to EDN’s website. And, since the subject was of personal interest to me, I’ve subsequently kept collecting tidbits it. To wrap up the week, I thought I’d pass some of the info on to you all.
We’re currently in the midst of Cycle 25, the latest 11-year solar activity period, which began in 2008. For unknown reasons, it is (at least so far) much quieter on average than past recorded cycles have been. However, a notable solar flare ejection on April 3rd resulted in impressive aurora borealis displays two days later. Another coronal mass ejection, on April 13th, created a 500,000 mile long plasma ‘tongue’ big enough for 126 Earths to fit within. Even though the Earth suffered only an indirect blow from this particular solar storm, it was still sufficiently intense to disrupt the communications electronics of a Galaxy 15 commercial satellite that handled (among other things) GPS functions.
More generally, NASA believes that the last several solar cycles have represented a period of abnormally quiet solar activity compared to the historical norm. Unfortunately for us, NASA also believes that the Sun is about to awaken, specifically in 2013 (versus the potential-disaster-in-2012 premise of my past post). The result was the focus of the The Space Weather Enterprise Forum, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. two months back. From NASA’s promotional web page:
Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:
“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”
Here’s some post-conference coverage courtesy of Slashdot; if informed readers have any additional presentation feedback to share, please publish it in the comments.
Before continuing with the gloom-and-doom, here’s a shot of the Southern Lights taken on May 29th by an astronaut on the International Space Station:
At the time, the ISS was 350 km above the southern Indian Ocean.
X-rays were a common theme of two other recent sequential Slashdot posts. First off, noise created by the solar wind’s interaction with comet tails was determined to be similar to that produced when solar wind particles strike neutral atoms above the magnetosphere. This discovery theoretically enables scientists to generate dynamic maps of the magnetosphere’s condition, thereby providing an ‘early warning’ indicator of particularly vulnerable ’space weather’ situations. And speaking of vulnerabilities, a gamma-ray burst originating five billion light years away (but of an unknown origin) temporarily ‘blinded’ NASA’s Swift satellite with a stream of up to 143,000 photons per second.
More generally, cosmic ray sourcing is inconsistent across the cosmos. The thermosphere, an upper region of the Earth’s atmosphere, has just experienced a dramatic collapse in thickness for unknown reasons, although lengthier-than-normal recent solar activity minimums may have a role to play. And speaking of photon bursts, intense gamma ray irradiation can shut down photosynthesis on Earth even hundreds of feet below the surface of bodies of water.
Last but not least, the Sun fired up its solar flare generators again this past Sunday August 1st. I wrote the first draft on this post on Tuesday the 3rd, even though it didn’t ‘go live’ until Friday afternoon the 6th, so in tackling this topic I gambled that the coronal mass ejection reportedly headed straight for us (and due to also hit the earth’s magnetosphere later on the 3rd) wouldn’t result in the end of human life on earth (image links to a MOV video clip):
Here’s more, courtesy of Wired:
Fortunately, as it turns out, the Earth’s inhabitants survived this week’s exposure to solar-sourced radiation. But next time…? And hey, if the Sun doesn’t get us, maybe an asteroid will…
Have a nice (?) weekend, everyone…