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AS IF we haven’t already had enough celestial excitement with asteroids, comets and meteorites (www.wp.me/p2ETap-SU). Add solar flares, and consider what happened when Earth experienced its most recent major one back in 1859. According to The New York Times, March 18, 2013, (http://goo.gl/R18Bb), there’s a chance—fortunately a tiny one—that such an event these days could cause global chaos.
The 1859 Solar Superstorm, aka the Carrington Event, induced the largest known geomagnetic responses in our corner of the solar system. Sunspots and solar flares occurred from August 28 until September 2, 1859. The biggest was a huge coronal mass ejection on September 1.
Such flares are highly directional, but British amateur astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson identified that this one traveled directly toward Earth. Aurorae were seen as far south as the Caribbean. The skies across the Rockies were said to be so bright that night the miners mistook it for morning.
In those days, electrical devices were few, primarily the telegraph networks in North America and Europe. However, the geomagnetic effects were downright scary. Telegraph operators got shocked, their devices threw off sparks, telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire.
Such solar happenings are part of an 11-year cycle, though really major storms like the 1859 event are judged to be more like 500-year occurrences. A fairly significant storm knocked out power throughout Quebec for a day back on March 13, 1989. A huge solar burst occurred last July, though it headed off to affect another part of the solar system.
This coming fall is expected to have a lot of solar activity, with coronal mass ejections being the worry. An 1859-like event would cause severe damage to orbiting satellites handling communications and navigation. Here on the surface, transformers of the electrical grid could be destroyed, the worst-hit locations being without power for months afterward.
NASA has a pair of spacecraft, Stereo A and B, orbiting the Sun around the same path as the Earth’s. See NASA’s excellent video on this at http://goo.gl/c72pB. One Stereo leads us around, the other lags behind; the pair gives a first look at the Sun’s complete rotation in real time. A major eruption in July 2012, though aimed away from us, was caught by one of these spacecraft. Its data will help specialists devise how to keep our own electromagnetic house in order.
NASA has a satellite, ACE, the Advanced Composition Explorer, that can identify directionality of coronal mass ejections. Its warning time, though, is on the order of 10 minutes—which would be a very busy 10 minutes for utilities and other affected organizations to make crucial decisions.
Our Big Blue Marble is insignificant in the larger scheme of things. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013