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Bracing for Solar Tempests
Solar super storms could wreak havoc. They can cause extensive damage to our power grids, devastate low orbiting satellites, disrupt communication systems, and expose our astronauts and pilots, to dangerous levels of radiation. Traditionally, such solar hurricanes could occur once in 500 years. But less intensive ones happen once in ten years.
Generally, the earth, our magnetosphere, our natural shield, is good at deflecting, such cosmic threats. But when attacked by extreme solar activity, our magnetosphere shrinks, exposing us to all the dangerous extraterrestrial particles and rays, thus rendering us highly vulnerable.
Ideally you would have around 40 to 60 hours, to react to such a hostile event. But, when a second flare closely follows the first one, the response time would be considerably less, owing to an undermined magnetic field.
Solar fury of 1859 was the harshest, resulting in vivid auroras over the sky, wrecking our technological infrastructure. Another solar geomagnetic storm, a less intensive one, which happened in the later part of 1960, did cause considerable damage to technological infrastructure. These were followed by many weaker storms, with accountable financial losses.
Reasons for Their Occurrence
When solar spots increase atypically in number and size, resulting in aggressive solar magnetic activity; flares — high energy particles and intense x-rays — and massive clouds of ionized gas are ejected, at very high velocities. Highly concentrated x-rays heat up the upper atmosphere, causing its anomalous expansion. Ironically, the magnetic field created by the plasma, could oppose earth's magnetic field, producing vast amounts of magnetic energy, that would create very large induced currents, in power grids. The high energy protons released interact with nuclei of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere, causing very strong red auroras; therefore, generating neutrons, that would give rise to nitrate excess incongruities. These adverse conditions could last over a week.
Types of Solar Flares
- Small solar flares (SSF) are small scale explosions, with bursts of radiation.
- Coronal mass ejections (CME) are behemoth bubbles of highly ionized gas.
- Solar proton events (SPE) are large floods of high energy protons.
- SSF could cause an increased drag on artificial satellites, reducing the lifespan of geosynchronous communications satellites, jamming radio signals, increasing radio noise at GPS frequencies, and rendering GPS dysfunctional, due to positional errors — for all sorts of applications, military or civilian.
- CME could fry our transformers, damage other electrical or electronic appliances, and throw man-made satellites out of orbit.
- Unsettling the ionosphere, thereby badly effecting timing signals.
- For instance, all communications devices will be rendered unusable, at least for a short period of time, regardless of the type of flare.
- Computers systems behave erratically and erroneously. Sometimes, they are forced to reboot.
- Power grids and telegraph systems, would be damaged by very large induced currents, surging into cables and transformers. Even a total power grid shut down is possible, based on the intensity of the geomagnetic storm.
- To avoid obnoxious interference from these high energy cosmic particles, flights would have to rerouted or diverted, they will have to fly at lower altitudes.
- Earth’s ecosystem would be badly affected by nitrate abundance anomalies, high energy protons interacting with atmospheric gases, because of SPE.
- Avionics will be adversely affected, irrespective of flare type.
- Collateral monetary losses to consumers, owing to incapacitated satellites or power grid brownouts.
- Astronauts and airline passengers would get an extra dose of radiation.
Remedies for Space Weather Vagaries
- Fortifying our satellites — Better layer of covering, increasing the number of spare transponders, reducing the satellite’s mass, using gallium arsenide instead of silicon, and lowering the solar panel voltages.
- Precisely planned geostationary movements by satellite operators.
- Timely actions by grid operators, for cutting on downtime.
- Making power grids more robust.
- Deterring cosmonauts from space walks.
- Using space buoys for monitoring.
- Increasing public awareness with advanced warnings.
- Properly planned flight diversions.
- Additional backup systems.
- Preventing data corruption, by writing better software code.
- More investment for space weather forecasting and modeling, especially for the purchase of space weather monitoring satellites.
Unless meteorologists and scientists, who still rely on outdated or obsolete techniques, come up with better ways of foreboding these erratic solar storms, and chalk out ways for effectively dealing with them, huge financial losses — up to hundreds of billions of dollars — are inevitable.
© 2017 Rayan Milkton