Major solar storms could push us back into the Dark Ages, unless preemptive measures are taken to combat the effects of extreme weather patterns in our galaxy.
This was the conclusion of the White House’s National Science and Technology Council, which published the National Space Weather Action Plan on October 29, in order to commence preparations against such far reaching phenomena.
During its normal activity, the Sun continuously ejects solar wind made up of energized, subatomic particles, at velocities reaching 1 million miles per hour. Usually, this charged stream isn’t that potent, and our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere can easily reject most of it.
However, critical changes in our nearest, most familiar star, could lead to solar winds so powerful that they would permeate our protective magnetosphere. According to officials, this could negatively impact essential telecommunications and navigation systems, and wreak havoc to spacecraft and satellites.
“These critical infrastructures make up a diverse, complex, interdependent system of systems in which a failure of one could cascade to another”, warned the National Science and Technology Council.
Eventually, electric power systems would be completely ruined, and the contemporary world would be plunged back into the Dark Ages in the blink of an eye.
A somewhat small solar storm in March 1989 brought to a standstill Hydro-Québec’s electrical transmission, leaving millions without light for a period of 9 hours.
Similarly, a solar flare in 2012 forced United Airlines and Delta Airlines to divert flights, while a major coronal mass ejection which struck Earth in 1859 brought chaos across telegraph networks.
As a report published in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences has shown, the economic impact of an even larger solar surge would amount to $2 trillion in the first year, which would be nearly ten times as much as any natural disaster reported throughout history.
Estimations made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reveal that the probability of such a phenomenon taking place in the following decade is worth taking into account, at around 12%, similar to the odds of an 8 magnitude earthquake rocking the U.S.
Therefore, given that this potentially cataclysmic event is much more likely than it might initially seem, it is imperative to establish a contingency plan.
One of the first steps to take is to make accurate predictions regarding the time when disaster will strike. With this objective in mind, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is continuously monitoring the Sun’s activity, to detect any changes or perturbations.
According to Thomas Berger, director of the federal institution, our host star is similar to a volcano, in that there are indicators as energy builds up, but the exact moment when the destructive flow will burst is hard to anticipate.
Once the observation center identifies these signs, alert messages are issued to power companies, airlines and space satellite operators, so that they are informed around 12 to 15 hours before the surge of charged particles reaches Earth.
The actual power of the solar storm can only be quantified later on, using the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), which is located at a distance of 932,000 miles from our planet, and floats right between Earth and the Sun.
When the storm reaches this space “tsunami buoy”, data is transmitted regarding the speed of the particles, approximately 15 to 60 minutes before they actually collide with the magnetosphere.
Given that ACE is already 17 years old, a new monitoring equipment called the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite is scheduled to take its place soon.
Also, the White House is planning other strategies which would boost preparedness in anticipation of such major solar flares. For instance, within the next 120 days, the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security are expected to create an “all-hazard Power Outage Incident Annex”.
This will detail the most important steps to be taken in order to react effectively to coronal mass ejections, without losing all the technological advancements that have been achieved so far.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has also been developing its own services meant to detect changes in space weather and promptly tackle them before they cause irreversible destruction.
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