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Later this year, solar activity is expected to increase, and so will the likelihood that these storms will affect our everyday lives on Earth. Travel, communications, phone service and basic power are all vulnerable to solar storms.
Sunspots and other solar activity can also release charged particles and plasma from the Sun’s surface. The ejection of these particles is known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME.
While solar flares can create some disruptions here on Earth, it’s the CMEs that cause major problems.
The charged particles of a CME typically take about three days to reach Earth. When they do, they usually bounce off the magnetic field surrounding the planet.
Here’s where the pretty lights come in. The aurora in the night sky is actually caused by those particles from the CME bouncing around in Earth’s magnetic field.
But it can turn ugly. If enough particles get trapped in the magnetic field, they can actually cause it to shake. This shaking is called a geomagnetic storm and it can wreak havoc on our electric grids.
It’s happened before. On March 13, 1989, a massive CME created a geomagnetic storm that shut down power in Quebec, Canada for 12 hours.
But the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record was the Carrington Event in 1859. It’s named for astronomer Richard Carrington who first saw the CME’s sunspots. There were worldwide reports of telegraph communications failing, with sparks exploding from machines and even catching papers on fire.
The Halloween Storm (October 29, 2003)
This Halloween Storm spawned auroras that were seen over most of North America. Extensive satellite problems were reported, including the loss of the $450 million Midori-2 research satellite. Highly publicized in the news media. A huge solar storm has impacted the Earth, just over 19 hours after leaving the sun. This is one of the fastest solar storm in historic times, only beaten by the perfect solar storm in 1859 which spent an estimated 17 hours in transit. A few days later on November 4, 2003 one of the most powerful x-ray flares ever detected, swamped the sensors of dozens of satellites, causing satellite operations anomalies….but no aurora. Originally classified as an X28 flare, it was upgrade to X34 a month later. In all of its fury, it never became a white light flare such as the one observed by Carrington in 1859. Astronauts hid deep within the body of the International Space Station, but still reported radiation effects and ocular 'shooting stars'. solarstorms.org
Posted by: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:42 PM GMT on April 03, 2009 +20
Shortly after midnight on September 2, 1859, campers in the Rocky Mountains were awakened by an "auroral light, so bright that one could easily read common print. Some of the party insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast", according to the Rocky Mountain News. Magnetic observatories world-wide recorded disturbances in Earth's field so extreme that magnetometer traces were driven off scale, and telegraph networks experienced major disruptions and outages. The electricity which attended this beautiful phenomenon took possession of the magnetic wires throughout the country, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported, 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 substance in brilliant sparks. In several locations, operators disconnected their systems from the batteries and sent messages using only the current induced by the aurora. In Havana, Cuba, the sky that night appeared "stained with blood and in a state of general conflagration" and auroras were observed as far south as Hawaii and northern Venezuela (Figure 1). A British amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed an outburst of "two patches of intensely bright and white light" from a large and complex group of sunspots the the center of the Sun's disk the previous day, and so the solar storm of 1859 has been dubbed "the Carrington event". It remains the most severe solar storm to affect the Earth in recorded history.
What would happen if another solar outburst with the magnitude of the Carrington event were to hit Earth today? With society so much more dependent on electricity, the effects could be tremendously expensive, causing serious disruption to the economies of nations in the northernmost and southernmost portions of the globe. An example of this vulnerability occurred during the March 13, 1989 geomagnetic "Superstorm" when a severe geomagnetic storm triggered strong direct currents in the long wires of the Canadian electric power grid. The grid was not designed to handle this, and the result was a power outage that knocked out power to the entire province of Quebec, Canada--six million people--for nine hours. The 1989 event very nearly brought down the electrical power grid over a large portion of the U.S., as well, and we were very lucky that the storm was not stronger. The 1859 Carrington event was three times more powerful than the 1989 "Superstorm", and would likely cause the failure of a huge portion of the U.S. power grid were it to hit today.
Top geomagnetic storm events of recorded history
The intensity of a geomagnetic storm can be measured by counting the number of solar charged particles that enter the Earth's magnetic field near the Equator. This number is called the Disturbance storm time, or Dst. Reliable Dst measurements go back to the 1950s. Bruce Tsurutani of NASA used magnetic field measurements taken on the ground in Bombay, India to estimate the Dst for the Carrington event. Based on Dst, the strongest geomagnetic storms in history were in 1921 and 1859. I also show on this list the strongest storms since 1960:
1) Dst = -1600, Carrington event, September 2, 1859
2) Dst = -900, May 14-15, 1921
3) Dst = -589, March 13, 1989 Superstorm
4) Dst = -472, November 20, 2003
5) Dst = -401, October 30, 2003
The 1921 event wiped out telegraph service east of the Mississippi. The currents induced in some telegraph wires were so strong that numerous fires were caused and several operators were injured by exploding consoles. Radio reception was completely lost in New Zealand, but was strengthened in Europe. Auroras were seen as far south as Puerto Rico.
1859 a huge solar storm burned out telegraph wires across Europe and the United States. Dr Stuart Clark has written a book, The Sun Kings, about when that happened. He says that the "Carrington flare", as it was known, "smothered two-thirds of the Earth’s skies in a blood-red aurora a night later, and crippled all of global navigation and global communication, such as it was at that time. Compasses span uselessly and the telegraph network went down as phantom electricity surged through the wire."
The sun had indeed been running at a record high for the latter half of the 20th century, and has now died down to its lowest level for a century. But Dr Clark warns that "average levels of solar activity has fallen does not mean that the Sun is immune from large flares or even giant ones. Low average levels of activity may even promote the giant flares.
"Perhaps like earthquakes, when there are constant flares/tremors the energy is dissipated evenly over long periods of time. But in periods of quiet, that energy can build up and then suddenly be released in a giant event. This remains speculation, however."
2013 is when the next peak in the sun's cycle of activity is expected, and while we cannot predict individual flares, Dr Clark says that the largest flares are often shortly after the peak.
Most operational systems can withstand certain levels of disturbances in the magnetosphere and ionosphere, but large geomagnetic storms can cause deleterious effects on space- and ground-based installations. The manifestations of storms are strong deviations in the Earth's magnetic field from the quiet conditions that extend over wide geographic areas: from high-latitude to mid-latitude and equatorial regions. Significant geomagnetic disturbances produce awe-inspiring auroral displays (designated aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere), which have attracted the interest of generations of scientists, but they can also cause disruptive effects such as loss of satellites and failure of communications networks and electric power grids.
The disturbances in the geomagnetic fields are caused by fluctuations in the solar wind impinging on the Earth. The disturbances may be limited to the high-latitude polar regions, unless the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) carried by the solar wind has long periods (several hours or more) of southward component (Bz < 0) with large magnitudes (greater than 10-15 nT). The occurrence of such a period stresses the magnetosphere continuously, causing the magnetic field disturbances to reach the equatorial region. The degree of the equatorial magnetic field deviation, the measure of the magnitude of geomagnetic storms, is usually given by the Dst index. This is the hourly average of the deviations of the H (horizontal) component of the magnetic field measured by several ground stations in mid- to low-latitudes. Dst = 0 means no deviation from the quiet condition, and Dst < -100 nT means large storms. During the March 1989 storm that caused the province-wide blackout in Quebec, Canada, the Dst index reached approximately -600 nT.