Danger from Space: Bombardment by Lethal Radiation

Commentary, Disruption, Eamonn Brosnan

The earth is constantly bombarded by lethal radiation, though we are fortunately shielded by our planetary magnetic field. Our sun produces a constant output of energy; however, due to the build up of energy and the fluctuation of magnetic fields in the sun, sometimes a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME) will occur. These are 2 different things, though they are caused by the same solar conditions and sometimes happen coincidentally. Solar flares, the more common of the two, can give us a more intense show of both the aurora borealis and the aurora australis. When a CME hits our planet, it intensifies the aurora lights as well, but if it has enough mass behind it, it can actually bend the earth’s magnetic field, flattening it on the side facing the sun while pushing the nightside field out further into space, all the while discharging electrical current into the earth, and anything between space and the earth’s core.

In the days before technology, we likely wouldn’t have noticed a CME as anything more than very bright auroras that reach further south than usual. In fact, chemical analysis of our polar ice layers as well as in geologic deposits, has allowed us to identify evidence that points to enormous solar flares and/or CME’s in our pre-technology past. We have even been able to correlate this physical evidence to written accounts of observations by ancient writers.

In more recent times, since we’ve begun using technology that can be damaged by these events, we have experienced a number of disturbing space storm phenomena. In 1859, there was the well-known Carrington event, the first time a solar flare was witnessed by an astronomer. It also hit the earth, and caused damage to our primitive electrical grid as well as to the global telegraph network. Some operators were shocked by the excess electricity in their equipment and it was noted that some equipment and lines caught on fire. Some operators even reported that they were able to use the telegraph equipment for a period of time afterward without having their power equipment attached, due to the electrical charge that was built up in the lines and equipment.

The Carrington event was the largest CME to have hit us in recent times, though our astronomers have observed 2 solar events that were measured to have been even larger, one in 2003 and another in 2012. That would just be events that have happened on the side of the sun facing us, as we can’t observe the other side currently. More recently there have been several other smaller events that have wreaked havoc among human’s technology. In 1972 a solar flare triggered the destruction of sea mines in Vietnam, laid by the American military to protect their withdrawal. In 1989, the Quebec power grid was overloaded and caused a blackout which lasted 11 hours. Neither of these events was anywhere near as large as the 1859 event.

Our sun has a cycle of increasing and decreasing activity which lasts approximately 11 years, on average, though typically ranges from 9 to 16 years. Solar Flares and CMEs are more prevalent during the solar maximum, when the sun is more active in the cycle. We are currently in a solar minimum, with the new solar cycle expected to begin by the end of 2019 or early 2020, though some scientists believe that the new cycle has begun already this year. The current forecast is that we should reach maximum between 2023 and 2026.

All of this leads us to the crux of the situation. In 2014 a physicist named Pete Riley calculated that there was a 12% chance of the earth being hit by a Carrington level (or higher) CME within the next 10 years, though not all scientists agree with his calculations. Just 2 years prior to this, in 2012, a CME of at least the power of the 1859 storm passed through the Earth’s orbit, missing by just 1 week. The results of such an impact could be devastating to our modern, technologically-enhanced, lives. Imagine if you will, all electrical power grids, across the globe, have been overloaded. Massive transformers destroyed, satellites disabled, and even some electronics damaged are all possible effects of a large enough CME. It is estimated that if a Carrington-level CME were to strike us without any preparations being taken, our power grid in North America alone could sustain $2 T worth of damage and take years to bring fully back into operation. Equivalent damages could occur across the globe. After the 1989 blackout in Quebec that was caused by a sizeable solar flare (though it was much smaller than the 1859 Carrington event) power companies have made some efforts to better prepare their grids. They are better able to handle smaller and localized interruptions than they were before, but currently our only solution to a major solar storm would be to disconnect all transformers, taking down our power grid ourselves, and hoping that not too much is damaged in the meantime. Some of our newer satellites have been protected against such surges, though most that are currently in orbit have not been, which could leave us with major communications gaps until we could restore these satellites. 

In the case of a Carrington-level event hitting us, the minimum impact would see satellites left out of control until they could be brought back online, our entire power grid down for several hours, a complete radio blackout due to the interference, and maybe even some electronics equipment damaged. In a worst-case scenario, our power grid could be down for months and possibly even take several years to be fully restored, with many of our satellites disabled, complete radio blackouts for days, and severe disruption to electronic systems. Would one or more nations take this opportunity for a pre-emptive strike on their rivals? It is not impossible that wars could even be triggered by such chaos.

What can we do to prevent this disaster? Many organizations have been taking precautions. Power companies have implemented better safeguards in the wake of the 1989 Quebec blackout. NASA has observatories trained on the sun, studying it, which will also give us notice of a storm headed our way. Continuing to harden new satellites against such surges and developing contingency plans on how to reactivate or dispose of disabled satellites quickly would help protect our orbital space. Maintaining a backup communications network that would allow emergency agencies in all countries to work together and help us to recover as quickly as possible might be instrumental in reducing the recovery time and perhaps heading off any misunderstandings that might end in wars erupting.

Originally published on Epoch Times, September 23, 2019.