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Solar storm threat: are we prepared for a new catastrophe?

Solar storm threat: are we prepared for a new catastrophe?

This is not science fiction, scientists warn that there is a 50% chance that a huge solar storm will hit the Earth. Its effects would be very serious: it would leave us without electricity and technology and would damage our health. But we can prepare to face it.

Is it time to create the Ministry of Black Swans? Low probability, high impact events are a reality, as the pandemic has shown. What will be the next catastrophe? No one knows, but we should be prepared for whatever it is: viruses, asteroids, terrorism, weather ... However, the most surprising (and underestimated) risk comes from the Sun.

The probability that a devastating ejection of the coronal mass (something like the perfect solar storm) will hit Earth squarely is 50% this century, according to the latest predictive models. In any case, it is not negligible. And one lesson from COVID-19 is that, if you have lottery tickets, sooner or later it plays.

The problem is that most governments prefer to react on the fly to “black swans” rather than have a contingency plan. A recklessness that we can no longer afford, "Individuals seek protection from governments and, if they can, from insurance companies. But executives have shown a penchant for ignoring risks, even when the price of the forecast is small. It's an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of the future", Argues a British weekly.

A solar storm would be more dangerous than ever

The danger of the great flare, a mixture of solar wind and magnetic pulse, has always accompanied us. The paradox is that humanity has never been more vulnerable than now, that it depends on technology for almost everything. And the technology must be plugged into the power. "The solar corona intermittently spews large jets of electromagnetic particles into space. These cause the northern and southern lights, and can damage electrical and telecommunications networks. But during the century or so that electricity has become a crucial part of human life the Earth has never been hit by one of these solar burps. If a coronal mass ejection were to occur, all kinds of satellite systems for navigation, communications, missile attack warning systems ... would be in danger. Large areas of the planet could be without electricity for months or years“, Warns the British press.

Blackouts, fires, cancer ...

Other consequences of a great solar storm? Transformer fires and power grid blackouts. If these cuts are prolonged in time, they would also affect the water supply. Nuclear power plants could see their cooling compromised. The GPS network would be affected, as well as VHF and HF radio communications, although ships and aircraft have alternative instruments.

The Internet would suffer drops, but the robustness of the transoceanic lines and the architecture of the connections, based on redundancy, that is, alternative equipment and routes with which to continue operating, would mitigate the effects. In terms of health, there could be a slight increase in the rates of skin cancer and eye conditions due to the momentary increase in exposure to ultraviolet rays. And in terms of cost, a study by the insurance company Lloyds calculated that in the United States alone it could reach 2.5 trillion dollars and that its electricity grid could be affected for up to two years.

There is a history to worry about. The most powerful event on record is known as "the Carrington flare." It hit the planet in 1859, literally frying the telegraph stations, which was the Internet of the Victorian era (radio communications didn't exist yet). In 2012 there was another solar storm of a similar magnitude, but fortunately the cannon fired from the Sun in the direction of the Earth's orbit did not reach its target and was lost in the cosmos.

However, coronal mass ejections - most of them modest in size - are frequent phenomena. Our star ‘spits’ up to three a day during peak periods. And alternate a phase of lethargy with another of hyperactivity. Each phase lasts about eleven years. And right now he's stretching, like a bear that has hibernated and comes out of the cave. Its peak will come in 2025.


When would the storm come

What is the probability that a high intensity geomagnetic storm will hit Earth in the short term? Researcher Pete Riley predicts that it will be around 12 percent in the next decade, although a mathematical model developed by a team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and published in 2019 byScientific Reports (Nature), reduces the probability to less than 2 percent. "It is not negligible if its consequences are taken into account", warns the professor and co-author of the study Pere Puig. “Governments should have protocols for action in the face of these disasters, inform and reassure the population that may have run out of electricity and cut off communications. Let us remember that there will be very little time margin before the unforeseen arrival of a storm of these characteristics ”.

What is that margin? Between 15 and 60 minutes. Such an event cannot be controlled, but it can be detected with some anticipation when it happens. The satellite in charge of giving the warning signal would barely warn us 30 minutes in advance before the solar wind sweeps the Earth's atmosphere. This satellite is the Deep Space Climate Observatory (although it was originally named Triana, in honor of the Spanish navigator Rodrigo de Triana, the first of Columbus's crew to sight land in America). It was launched in 2015 from a Falcon 9 - the launch vehicle of SpaceX, Elon Musk's company - after spending twelve years dumped in a NASA warehouse, which had no budget or political motivation to put it into orbit until the administration Obama insisted. Work is underway to have forecasts of at least three days, based on the appearance of sunspots that may indicate abnormal activity.

Emergency action

The question is not if it will happen, but when; how it will affect our civilization and what can be done about it“, Warns Jorge Eiras, professor of Physics at the University of Vigo, who in 2018 prepared a report entitledGeomagnetic solar storms, a silent threat from a hypertechnological society, at the request of the Higher Center for National Defense Studies, an advisory body that depends on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Eiras regrets that only the United States and Canada have action plans in the event of an event of this kind. "Our response capacity will depend on the speed to undertake actions that repair the electricity supply, guarantee the safety of the aircraft in flight and reduce the possibility of the situation leading to chaos - he warns - Ignorance of this phenomenon both among the population and in public bodies is a major drawback“.

Avi Loeb, director of the Institute of Astronomy at Harvard University, goes further and believes that measures should be taken to deflect solar particles before they reach the atmosphere. To do this, he proposes putting a magnetic shield into orbit. "It would be a major engineering project, costing about $ 100 billion. But I'm afraid that before the politicians act we will have to suffer an event similar to the Carrington flare.“, He predicts.

By Carlos Manuel Sánchez

Video: The Grid vs. The Next Big Solar Storm (October 2020).