Solar Cycle 24

Dangerous Solar Storms Coming As Current Cycle Wanes?

“Though the sun is currently in the peak year of its 11-year solar weather cycle, our closest star has been rather quiet over all, scientists say.

This year’s solar maximum is shaping up to be the weakest in 100 years…”

-SPACE.com, July 12, 2013

“This is the height of the 11-year solar cycle, the so-called solar maximum. The face of the Sun should be pockmarked with sunspots, and cataclysmic explosions of X-rays and particles should be whizzing off every which way.

Instead, the Sun has been tranquil, almost spotless…”

The New York Times website, September 23, 2013

I have this feeling that many of those concerned about a dangerous solar maximum (normal period of greatest solar activity in an 11-year “solar cycle” of the Sun) and Solar Cycle 24 are ready to call it a day.

I’m not sure we’re out of the woods quite yet though when it comes to threatening space weather.

From the website of Boulder, Colorado-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of more than 100 member colleges and universities focused on research and training in the atmospheric and related Earth system sciences, earlier today:

ON THE WATCH FOR SOLAR SUPERSTORMS

As the current solar cycle winds down, the risk of big storms goes up

Don’t write off this solar cycle just yet. Even though the current peak in the 11-year cycle of sunspot activity is on the weak side, the Sun might still produce a major storm at any point, spewing plasma that could disrupt power grids and satellite communications. What’s more, the waning part of the solar cycle—which we’ll experience during the latter part of this decade— is actually when the most dangerous storms are most likely.

NCAR solar physicist Scott McIntosh is raising awareness. He gave a talk at the American Meteorological Society’s 2014 annual meeting on how and why solar storms tend to cluster on either side of the solar activity cycle, with the very biggest tending to occur as the cycle recedes

(Editor’s note: Bold in body text added for emphasis)

This is the first time I’ve heard of such an increased risk in dangerous space storms as a solar cycle wraps up. If I come across more material on this phenomenon, I’ll share it with readers.

In the meantime, you can read that entire piece on the UCAR website here.

By Christopher E. Hill
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)

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Solar Scientist: July 2012 Coronal Mass Ejection And 1859 Carrington Event Show Need To Prepare

Here’s a press release that should concern every adult American. From University of Colorado-Boulder Professor Daniel Baker, a solar scientist and the director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, on Monday:

CU-Boulder scientist: 2012 solar storm points up need for society to prepare

A massive ejection of material from the sun initially traveling at over 7 million miles per hour that narrowly missed Earth last year is an event solar scientists hope will open the eyes of policymakers regarding the impacts and mitigation of severe space weather, says a University of Colorado Boulder professor.

The coronal mass ejection, or CME, event was likely more powerful than the famous Carrington storm of 1859, when the sun blasted Earth’s atmosphere hard enough twice to light up the sky from the North Pole to Central America and allowed New Englanders to read their newspapers at night by aurora light, said CU-Boulder Professor Daniel Baker. Had it hit Earth, the July 2012 event likely would have created a technological disaster by short-circuiting satellites, power grids, ground communication equipment and even threatening the health of astronauts and aircraft crews, he said.

CMEs are part of solar storms and can send billions of tons of solar particles in the form of gas bubbles and magnetic fields off the sun’s surface and into space. The storm events essentially peel Earth’s magnetic field like an onion, allowing energetic solar wind particles to stream down the field lines to hit the atmosphere over the poles.

Fortunately, the 2012 solar explosion occurred on the far side of the rotating sun just a week after that area was pointed toward Earth, said Baker, a solar scientist and the director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. But NASA’s STEREO-A, satellite that was flying ahead of the Earth as the planet orbited the sun, captured the event, including the intensity of the solar wind, the interplanetary magnetic field and a rain of solar energetic particles into space.

“My space weather colleagues believe that until we have an event that slams Earth and causes complete mayhem, policymakers are not going to pay attention,” he said. “The message we are trying to convey is that we made direct measurements of the 2012 event and saw the full consequences without going through a direct hit on our planet.”

Baker will give a presentation on the subject at the 46th Annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union held in San Francisco Dec. 9 to Dec. 13.

While typical coronal mass ejections from the sun take two or three days to reach Earth, the 2012 event traveled from the sun’s surface to Earth in just 18 hours. “The speed of this event was as fast or faster than anything that has been seen in the modern space age,” said Baker. The event not only had the most powerful CME ever recorded, but it would have triggered one of the strongest geomagnetic storms and the highest density of particle fluctuation ever seen in a typical solar cycle, which last roughly 11 years.

“We have proposed that the 2012 event be adopted as the best estimate of the worst case space weather scenario,” said Baker, who chaired a 2008 National Research Council committee that produced a report titled Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. “We argue that this extreme event should be immediately employed by the space weather community to model severe space weather effects on technological systems such as the electrical power grid.

“I liken it to war games — since we have the information about the event, let’s play it through our various models and see what happens,” Baker said. “If we do this, we would be a significant step closer to providing policymakers with real-world, concrete kinds of information that can be used to explore what would happen to various technologies on Earth and in orbit rather than waiting to be clobbered by a direct hit.”

Even though it occurred about 150 years ago, the Carrington storm was memorable from a natural beauty standpoint as well as its technological impacts, he said. The event disrupted telegraph communications — the Internet of the Victorian Age — around the world, sparking fires at telegraph offices that caused several deaths, he said.

A 1989 geomagnetic storm caused by a CME from a solar storm in March 1989 resulted in the collapse of Hydro-Quebec’s electricity transmission system, causing 6 million people to lose power for at least nine hours, said Baker. The auroras from the event could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida.

“The Carrington storm and the 2012 event show that extreme space weather events can happen even during a modest solar cycle like the one presently underway,” said Baker. “Rather than wait and pick up the pieces, we ought to take lessons from these events to prepare ourselves for inevitable future solar storms.”

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)

Sobering stuff. You can read the entire press release on the CU-Boulder website here.

By Christopher E. Hill
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)

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Sun Fires Off More ‘X-Class’ Solar Flares

The Sun keeps churning out big solar flares these days. Karen C. Fox from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center reported on the NASA website earlier today:

The sun emitted a significant solar flare that peaked at 1:14 a.m. EST on Nov. 10, 2013. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however — when intense enough — they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.

This flare is classified as an X1.1 class flare. “X-class” denotes the most intense flares, while the number provides more information about its strength. An X2 is twice as intense as an X1, an X3 is three times as intense, etc.

Increased numbers of flares are quite common at the moment, since the sun’s normal 11-year activity cycle is ramping up toward solar maximum conditions…

This is the seventh significant flare since Oct. 23, 2013, with the largest being an X3.3 on Nov. 5, 2013.

I’m not too concerned about solar flares as I am coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. Ms. Fox pointed out back in a May 13 piece on the NASA website:

Solar flares can temporarily alter the upper atmosphere creating disruptions with signal transmission from, say, a GPS satellite to Earth causing it to be off by many yards. Another phenomenon produced by the sun could be even more disruptive. Known as a coronal mass ejection or CME these solar explosions propel bursts of particles and electromagnetic fluctuations into Earth’s atmosphere. Those fluctuations could induce electric fluctuations at ground level that could blow out transformers in power grids. A CME’s particles can also collide with crucial electronics onboard a satellite and disrupt its systems.

Fried electrical grids. Not good.

By Christopher E. Hill, Editor
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)

Sources:

Fox, Karen C. “Veteran’s Day Solar Flare.” NASA. 10 Nov. 2013. (http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/2013-Veterans-day-solar-flare/#.UoBMpeL4LS0http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/2013-Veterans-day-solar-flare/#.UoBMpeL4LS0). 10 Nov. 2013.

Fox, Karen C. “Impacts of Strong Solar Flares.” NASA. 13 May 2013. (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/flare-impacts.html). 10 Nov. 2013.

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Sun Emits Third X-Class Solar Flare In 3 Days With Coronal Mass Ejection Heading Towards Earth

Back on September 23, The New York Times ran a piece entitled, “The Sun That Did Not Roar.” Kenneth Chang wrote:

This is the height of the 11-year solar cycle, the so-called solar maximum. The face of the Sun should be pockmarked with sunspots, and cataclysmic explosions of X-rays and particles should be whizzing off every which way.

Instead, the Sun has been tranquil, almost spotless.

Go figure that after this article was published, activity started picking up on the Sun as solar max arrived in Solar Cycle 24.

Over the last three days, the Sun has fired off three X-class solar flares, with a coronal mass ejection scheduled to reach the Earth by Wednesday, October 30. Tariq Malik, Managing Editor of SPACE.com, wrote before lunchtime today:

The sun has just unleashed another major solar flare, the third of its kind in three days, scientists say.

The huge solar storm occurred late Sunday at 10:03 p.m. EDT (0203 Oct. 28 GMT). It registered as an X-class solar flare — the most powerful type of flare the sun has — and followed two back-to-back X-flares that erupted from the sun on Friday (Oct. 25)…

This latest solar flare erupted from an active sunspot region called AR1875 and triggered a strong radio blackout when it occurred, officials with the NOAA-run Space Weather Prediction Group explained in a status update. The flare also coincided with a massive explosion of super-hot solar plasma — called a coronal mass ejection, or CME — which should reach Earth by Oct. 30 and could trigger minor geomagnetic storms in the planet’s magnetic field, they added.

Severe geomagnetic storms can cause disruptions in satellite communications and power grids, as well as pose a risk to astronauts in space, but the storm levels from this latest major flare should not be that extreme.

TESIS, a geomagnetic activity forecasting resource that I blogged about back on August 24, currently reports that there’s only a 1 percent “probability of a strong magnetic storm” hitting the Earth tomorrow and Wednesday.

Sounds real good to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been estimated that a severe solar storm could cause $1 to $2 trillion in losses the first year, and take 4 to 10 years to fully recover from.

By Christopher E. Hill, Editor
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)

Sources:

Chang, Kenneth. “The Sun That Did Not Roar.” The New York Times. 23 Sep. 2013. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/science/space/the-sun-that-did-not-roar.html?_r=1&) 28 Oct. 2013.

Malik, Tariq. “Active Sun Fires Off 3rd Huge Solar Flare in 3 Days (Video).” SPACE.com. 28 Oct. 2013. (http://www.space.com/23353-sun-fires-off-huge-solar-flares-video.html). 28 Oct. 2013.

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NASA: Sun Undergoing Complete Field Reversal, Possibly Resulting In Stormy Space Weather Around Earth

Just when Earthlings were breathing a sigh of relief, comes word of another potential threat from Outer Space. From the latest National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ScienceCast that was published on YouTube.com on August 5:

Something big is about to happen on the Sun. According to measurements from NASA-supported observatories, the Sun’s vast magnetic field is about to flip. It looks like we’re no more than 3 to 4 months away from a complete field reversal, says solar physicist Todd Hoeksema of Stanford University. This change will have ripple effects throughout the Solar System.

The Sun’s magnetic field changes polarity approximately every 11 years. It happens at the peak of each solar cycle, as the Sun’s inner magnetic dynamo reorganizes itself. The coming reversal marked midpoint of Solar Cycle 24. Half of solar max will be behind us, with half yet to come…

When solar physicists talk about solar field reversals, their conversations often focus on the current sheet. The current sheet is a sprawling surface, jutting outward from the Sun’s equator where the Sun’s slowly-rotating magnetic field induces an electrical current…

During field reversals, the current sheet becomes very wavy… As Earth orbits the Sun, we dip in and out of the current sheet. Transitions from one side to another can stir up stormy space weather around our planet.

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)


“ScienceCasts: The Sun’s Magnetic Field is About to Flip”
YouTube Video

Jason Samenow discussed the potential for stormy space weather and disruption of electrical grids on Earth in the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog yesterday. The Capital Weather Gang’s chief meteorologist and Post Weather Editor warned:

Stormy space weather can lead to disruptions in high frequency radio and satellite communication, and – under extreme circumstances – the Earth’s electrical grid.

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)

Now, some good news. Samenow added:

Interestingly, the observed (and/or predicted) maximum in the current sunspot cycle (number 24), is the smallest in over 100 years (since February, 1906) due to depressed sunspot activity.

Scientists aren’t sure why the sunspot activity in this cycle is so weak, but it’s an ongoing area of exploration.

Live long and prosper.

By Christopher E. Hill, Editor
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)

Source:

Samenow, Jason. “Reverse! Sun’s magnetic field on the brink of 180-degree flip.” Capital Weather Gang. 6 Aug. 2013. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/08/06/reverse-suns-magnetic-field-on-the-brink-of-180-degree-flip/). 7 Aug. 2013.

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Lloyd’s Of London Releases Chilling Report On Solar Storm Risk To North American Electric Grid

One global threat I blog about from time to time is a massive disruption in the power grids from a severe solar storm. While many Americans may dismiss such an event as something out of science fiction, other parties take it seriously.

Enter Lloyd’s of London.

This morning, I read a new report from the British insurance market entitled “Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electrical Grid.” Put together with scientists from the Lexington, Massachusetts-based Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), the findings are quite alarming. Those living and working along the I-95 corridor between Washington D.C. and New York City, the Gulf Coast, and the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin) might find it particularly concerning. From the “Executive Summary”:

A Carrington-level, extreme geomagnetic storm is almost inevitable in the future. While the probability of an extreme storm occurring is relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur eventually. Historical auroral records suggest a return period of 50 years for Quebec-level storms and 150 years for very extreme storms, such as the Carrington Event that occurred 154 years ago.

The risk of intense geomagnetic storms is elevated as we approach the peak of the current solar cycle. Solar activity follows an 11-year cycle, with the most intense events occurring near the cycle peak. For the current Cycle 24, the geomagnetic storm risk is projected to peak in early 2015.

As the North American electric infrastructure ages and we become more and more dependent on electricity, the risk of a catastrophic outage increases with each peak of the solar cycle. Our society is becoming increasingly dependent on electricity. Because of the potential for long-term, widespread power outage, the hazard posed by geomagnetic storms is one of the most significant.

Weighted by population, the highest risk of storm-induced power outages in the US is along the Atlantic corridor between Washington D.C. and New York City. This takes into account risk factors such as magnetic latitude, distance to the coast, ground conductivity and transmission grid properties. Other high-risk regions are the Midwest states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, and regions along the Gulf Coast.

The total U.S. population at risk of extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of 16 days to 1-2 years. The duration of outages will depend largely on the availability of spare replacement transformers. If new transformers need to be ordered, the lead-time is likely to be a minimum of five months. The total economic cost for such a scenario is estimated at $0.6-2.6 trillion USD (see Appendix).

Storms weaker than Carrington-level could result in a small number of damaged transformers (around 10-20), but the potential damage to densely populated regions along the Atlantic coast is significant. The total number of damaged transformers is less relevant for prolonged power outage than their concentration. The failure of a small number of transformers serving a highly populated area is enough to create a situation of prolonged outage.

Creepy stuff, huh?

The existence of early-warning satellites is often pointed out in discussions about how serious a threat solar superstorms really are. However, keep in mind the following from the Lloyd’s report:

Currently, four space satellites (SOHO- Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, ACE- Advanced Composition Explorer, and STEREO A/B- Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) monitor the Sun. Situated between the Sun and Earth or along Earth’s orbit, these satellites can provide warnings of incoming CMEs on a timescale of a few days to hours. These warnings allow electric grid operators to take protective measures (i.e., decrease the electric load in the grid and increase reactive power production) before the storm hits. However these satellites are all several years past their planned mission lives and only one has a replacement scheduled to launch in 2014.

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)

You can read the entire Lloyd’s of London report (.pdf) on their website here.

By Christopher E. Hill, Editor
Survival And Prosperity (www.survivalandprosperity.com)

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Solar Storm Has Minimal Impact

Maybe I have “the gift.” This Monday I happened to be surfing YouTube when I stumbled on an upload of the National Geographic documentary Electronic Armageddon, which investigates the science behind the dangers of a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) from a nuclear weapon- and the sun- on modern society’s infrastructure, especially the electrical grid. While I saw its debut back in 2010, I decided to watch it again in light of some of the posts I’d written last year, including:

Coming Solar Storms Could Cause Trillions Of Dollars In High-Tech Infrastructure Damage,” June 1
Coronal Mass Ejections Pose Growing Threat To Earth,” August 16
Earth Hit By Solar Flare,” September 28

Funny thing is, while watching Electronic Armageddon for the second time, I had no idea the strongest solar storm in years was taking place. Seth Borenstein and Karl Ritter of the Associated Press wrote yesterday:

The electromagnetic burst associated with the start of this week’s storm occurred at about 11 p.m. ET Sunday, reaching medium levels. Then, on Monday and Tuesday, the proton radiation from the eruption hit strong levels, the most powerful since October 2003. That mostly affects astronauts and satellites, but NASA said the crew on the International Space Station was not harmed, and [U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center physicist Doug] Biesecker said only a few minor problems with satellites were reported.

Some airplane flights over the North Pole were rerouted because of expected communication problems from the radiation.

Close call? I wrote back on June 1:

Solar storms sound like they can pose a significant threat to personal and financial safety. Here’s what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has to say about the phenomenon on their website:

May 29, 2009: An international panel of experts led by NOAA and sponsored by NASA has released a new prediction for the next solar cycle. Solar Cycle 24 will peak, they say, in May 2013 with a below-average number of sunspots.

“If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78,” says panel chairman Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

It is tempting to describe such a cycle as “weak” or “mild,” but that could give the wrong impression.

“Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather,” points out Biesecker. “The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we’re predicting for 2013.”

The 1859 storm–known as the “Carrington Event” after astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare–electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their red and green glow. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause $1 to 2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery. For comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused “only” $80 to 125 billion in damage.

(Editor’s note: Italics added for emphasis)

Sources:

Borenstein, Seth and Ritter, Karl. “Solar storm brings fireworks, but few problems.” Associated Press. 24 Jan. 2012. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46124525/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.TyA2s4EbmSp). 25 Jan. 2012.

“New Solar Cycle Prediction.” NASA. 29 May 2009. (http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2009/29may_noaaprediction/). 25 Jan. 2012.

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Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 Infrastructure, Natural Disasters No Comments
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