Solar Activity Intensifying
Dr. Mark Sircus, Contributing Writer
On June 7th, Dr. C. Alex Young from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center woke to an email from a friend saying, “I have never seen anything like this before.” There are many things happening around us that we have not seen before, but when it happens on the sun certain people take notice. On the 7th the sun produced a prominence eruption and Dr. Young had never seen such a spectacular event, which luckily did not affect the space weather near Earth.
The huge storm unleashed what some have called the most massive eruption of solar plasma ever seen. NASA astronomers said the huge June 7 solar eruption, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), was notable both for its size and its odd behavior, as massive waves of plasma roared off the sun only to rain back down on the solar surface. “We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before,” said Phillip Chamberlin, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and a deputy project scientist on the agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite. “It’s a really exciting event. There are a lot of exceptions to it.”
NASA says the flare peaked Tuesday the 7th and created a large cloud that appeared to cover almost half the surface of the sun. Images were recorded by the orbiting satellite called the Solar Dynamics Observatory. A news release said the solar energy released by the event should deliver a “glancing blow” to Earth’s magnetic field on Wednesday or Thursday. But it’s not expected to cause a major impact here. The National Weather Service is predicting minor effects on satellites and weak impacts on some power grids.
A CME is a massive explosive eruption on the solar surface. These gigantic explosions are an indication that solar activity on our star is ramping up and one day planet Earth’s lucky streak of near-misses will run out and we will be broad-sided with one of these super-coronal explosions.
Solar activity is intensifying and a breakout of sunspots now dot the solar surface. On March 19, 2011 a huge filament of magnetism and hot plasma blasted off the sun’s southwestern limb. Many amateur astronomers in Europe witnessed the blast and said it was the biggest one they’d ever seen. This event continues the recent trend of increasing solar activity, and shows anew that Solar Cycle 24 is gaining steam after a long period of relative quiet.
The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Solar Superstorm or the Carrington Event that occurred during solar cycle 10, was the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, and the largest flare, observed by Richard Christopher Carrington, became known as the Carrington Super Flare. Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed in some cases even shocking telegraph operators. Telegraph pylons threw sparks and telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire. Some telegraph systems appeared to continue to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.
A severe solar storm on the magnitude of the Carrington Event or larger today would neutralize nearly electrical appliance on Earth—computers, internet, cell phones, satellites, ATMs, air-conditioning systems, electrical grids, or those items found in hospitals, water-treatment plants, etc.—we could lose it all in a flash and studies show a full recovery from an extremely severe solar storm could take many years.
As 2011 has unfolded, sunspots have returned and they are crackling with activity. On February 15th and again on March 9th, Earth-orbiting satellites detected a pair of “X-class” solar flares—the most powerful kind of x-ray flare.
Could a super-storm destroy civilization as we know it? No less than NASA thinks it’s a distinct possibility. In a remarkable move the normally conservative U.S. space agency has taken the extraordinary step of warning the world. The headlines reverberating around the world speak volumes: “Leaks discovered in Earth’s magnetic field,” “Solar storms to wreak havoc,” “The end of life as we know it,” “Magnetic shift to cause global super-storms.”
Can such things really happen? NASA and the European Space Agency say yes. Among all the countries with exposure to the solar devastation, the United States is the most susceptible. As The Daily Telegraph recently observed: “National power grids could overheat and air travel severely disrupted while electronic items, navigation devices and major satellites could stop working after the Sun reaches its maximum power…”
NASA’s recent warning to prepare (video added by ed. — A.P.)
Experts on the sun are very concerned as they see the sun awaking from its unusually long slumber with a violence unseen for generations. That violence is in the form of mammoth magnetic storms. Those storms hitting the Earth will be like a giant’s fist slamming into the fragile electronic technology that runs the world. “We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr. Richard Fisher, the director of NASA’s Heliophysics division, said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. “It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigation, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world.”
Since the sun’s last upheaval caused worldwide disruption and destruction in 1859, civilization has rapidly advanced a society based on a technological infrastructure that can be whisked away in moments by a severe geomagnetic storm. During 2008, the National Academy of Sciences issued a dire report: “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.” The report outlined in excruciating detail the potential demise of America’s 21st century technological base. Cities will be left without light and water, and food will run out. Civil unrest will surge as society collapses.
Officials in Britain and the United States are preparing to make controlled power cuts to their national electricity supplies in response to a warning of a possible powerful solar storm hitting the Earth. In an interview with The Independent, Thomas Bogdan, director of the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Centre, said that controlled power “outages” will protect the National Electricity Grids against damage which could take months or even years to repair should a large solar storm collide with the Earth without any precautions being taken.
Dr. Bogdan is in close discussions with scientists in the U.K. Met Office to set up a second space weather prediction center in Britain to co-ordinate a global response to a threat viewed seriously by both the U.S. and U.K. governments. One topic of discussion is how to protect national electricity grids from the immense power surges caused by the geomagnetic storms that happen when highly energetic solar particles collide with the Earth’s magnetic field.
“The most vulnerable parts of the grid are the hundreds of transformers connected to power lines many miles long that can experience sudden current surges during a geomagnetic solar storm. It points to a potential scenario where large parts of either North America or northern Europe may be without power from between days or weeks, to perhaps months and, in extreme cases, there are estimates that it could last years,” Dr. Bogdan said.
The March 5, 2011 sunspots 1164 and 1166 were so large people were noticing them at sunrise and sunset when the sun was dimmed by clouds and haze. The dark cores of these regions are many times wider than Earth so they are conspicuous even from a distance of 93 million miles.
The strongest solar flare in four years disrupted radio communications in southern China in February of 2011, according to the China Meteorological Administration. NASA says that “X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms, disrupting telecommunications and electric grids.”
Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X, with each class having a peak 10 times greater than the preceding one.