We tend to exist in ignorance of a lot of things above and below our feet. We are lulled into the belief we are in relative safety here on the surface of the earth with the exception of atmospheric storms, volcanoes and earthquakes of course.
We actually survive in a fragile shell of existence and our knowledge of what exists below the surface of the earth and what is in the oceans is less than what we know of our solar system. Over seven billion people live on the crust of the earth with the thickest of the atmosphere up to 36000 feet above them. Our atmosphere dwindles out to about 60 miles and is held in place by earths gravity.
Just beyond our atmosphere we have the junkyard of space – According to the United States Space Surveillance Network, there are more than 21,000 objects larger than four inches orbiting the Earth. Just a small fraction of these are operational satellites. It’s estimated there are a further 500,000 bits and pieces between a third of an inch and four inches in size.
Last week I wrote about sunspots and solar flares and promised to tell you the scary parts of space weather. We have space debris which can fall, solar flares, meteors and other hazards. As of today there are 1947 potentially hazardous asteroids which could swing into near earth orbit ranging in size of one to 250 meters. Just thought you would like to know….
The sun is the main source of space weather. Sudden bursts of plasma and magnetic field structures from the sun’s atmosphere called coronal mass ejections (CME) together with sudden bursts of radiation, or solar flares, all cause space weather effects here on Earth.
Space weather can produce electromagnetic fields that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines, and even causing wide-spread blackouts. Severe space weather also produces solar energetic particles, which can damage satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning, intelligence gathering, and weather forecasting.
The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington. During this event currents electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; and Northern Lights (electrically charged particles from the sun that enter Earth’s atmosphere) were visible as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.
Another significant space weather event took place on March 13,1989; a powerful geomagnetic storm set off a major power blackout in Canada that left six million people without electricity for nine hours. According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the flare disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station and even melted some power transformers in New Jersey.
Space weather can have an impact on our advanced technologies which has a direct impact on our daily lives. The main area of concern will most likely be our nation’s electric power grid. Northern territories are more vulnerable to these effects than areas farther south. Generally, power outages due to space weather are very rare events, but evidence suggests that significant effects could occur. These power outages may have cascading effects, causing:
- Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
- Loss of perishable foods and medications
- Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems
- Loss of computer systems, telephone systems, and communications systems (including disruptions in airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services)
- Loss of public transportation systems
- Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines
- Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power
The NOAA Space Weather Scales report three categories of solar effects. These scales communicate current and future space weather conditions, and their possible effects on people and systems. Similar to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, the NOAA space weather scales correlate space weather events with their likely effects on technological systems. As shown in the table below, the scales describe the environmental disturbances for three event types: Geomagnetic Storms (G-scale), Solar Radiation Storms (S-scale), and Radio Blackouts (R-scale). The scales have numbered levels, analogous to hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes that convey severity.
Description of Space Weather Scale
Geomagnetic Storms: disturbances in the geomagnetic field caused by gusts in the solar wind that blows by Earth.
|Minor — Extreme||G1|
Solar Radiation Storms: elevated levels of radiation that occur when the numbers of energetic particles increase.
|Minor — Extreme||S1|
Radio Blackouts: disturbances of the ionosphere caused by X-ray emissions from the Sun.
|Minor — Extreme||R1|
|Description of Space Weather Scale||Minor — Extreme|
|Geomagnetic Storms: disturbances in the geomagnetic field caused by gusts in the solar wind that blows by Earth.||G1||G2||G3||G4||G5|
|Solar Radiation Storms: elevated levels of radiation that occur when the numbers of energetic particles increase.||S1||S2||S3||S4||S5|
|Radio Blackouts: disturbances of the ionosphere caused by X-ray emissions from the Sun.||R1||R2||R3||R4||R5|
NOTE: The vast majority of “5” level events will not cause catastrophic damages to the electric grid. On average, the Earth is impacted by such storms about four times during every 11-year solar cycle, so many large storms have impacted the planet since the Carrington Storm with much less signification impact.
Yes, this is a dire way to start our work week – like the weather, earthquakes and volcanoes we have no control – just one of these can disrupt life, however a major solar storm or asteroid could have change the way we live (or not).