By Irina Slav
Climate has inarguably become a hot topic of discussion in developed economies over the last decade, and it is getting hotter by the day as study after study warn we are close to doomed if we don’t change our ways urgently. Yet climate on Earth is not the only problem that humankind faces. There is another climate we need to pay attention to, and there is nothing we can do to change that.
Solar storms, whose more scientific name is coronal mass ejections, were until recently believed to be a rare occurrence—only happening once every couple of centuries or so. However, there is reason to believe they may be a lot more frequent than that. In a world increasingly dependent on electricity, this is, to put it mildly, a problem.
In 1859 the Sun spewed concentrated plasma that broke through its magnetic fields in the direction of the Earth. Commonly referred to as the Carrington Event, that coronal mass ejection hit the Earth’s magnetic field, which warped it and caused telegraphs around the world to fail. For a long time, the scientific consensus was that solar storms of this magnitude were a rarity.
That was in the 19th century where telegraphs were cutting-edge tech. Now, we have power grids, airplanes, satellites, and computers, and all of them are potentially susceptible to the effects of another solar storm. We also know that solar storms of the magnitude of the Carrington Event or even worse occur more frequently.
“The Carrington Event was considered to be the worst-case scenario for space weather events against the modern civilization… but if it comes several times a century, we have to reconsider how to prepare against and mitigate that kind of space weather hazard,” the lead research in a study that reached that conclusion, Hisashi Hayakawa, said after the release of the study earlier this month.
The question of how to prepare is a tricky one. According to astrophysicist and aerospace engineer Robert Coker, the fallout from a severe solar storm could cost up to a trillion dollars. And that was in 2017, when he wrote “The trillion-dollar solar storm” for The Space Review. In it he discussed a 1921 solar storm with a magnitude similar to that of the Carrington Event. If that storm occurred today, he wrote, it would cost $1 trillion. It is certainly worth to be prepared, but how?
For starters, by predicting solar storms, writes atmospheric sciences professor Marshall Shepherd in an article for Forbes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, together with the U.S. Geological Survey, recently presented a Geoelectric Field Model. This model, according to them, “calculates regional electric field levels in the U.S. caused by disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field from geomagnetic storms.”
This, according to Shepherd, will provide relevant government agencies with near real-time information about upcoming storms, a kind of a heads-up before a storm hits the Earth’s magnetic field. Yet it seems this heads-up cannot prevent the consequences of a geomagnetic storm. In fact, according to Shepherd, it is mainly useful as an impact assessment tool rather than a tool of prevention:
“Such near-real time information on geomagnetic storms like a CME is valuable for assessing impacts on the infrastructure associated with the electrical power grid,” he wrote, adding, “Take a moment and think about how you would function for weeks without electrical power, GPS, or air travel.”