Recommended Actions Immediately Prior to Massive Solar Storm



This section provides practical advice for preparing for an imminent massive solar storm, one that is likely to produce a major blackout.

This preparation should help you get through the first few days of the crisis.


1. Extra Batteries – Obtain fresh batteries for flashlights and radios.

2. Gasoline – During a blackout the majority of service stations will be unable to pump gasoline because pumps are powered by electricity. Fill up all your vehicles (automobiles, trucks, motorcycles) with fuel. At the same time, fill up all your spare gas cans.

3. Cooking Fuel – During an electrical blackout, many of the appliances in your home including your cooking stove and range may become inoperative because most require electricity to operate. Determine your non-electric cooking options. For most individuals this will be an outdoor grill. Ensure that you have adequate supplies of charcoal for your outdoor grill along with matches and lighter fluid. If your grill runs off from propane, ensure that you have full propane tanks.

4. Prescription Medicine – Access to prescription medicine will be very limited during power blackouts because most pharmacies are very automated for logging and dispensing prescriptions. Those who have chronic conditions that require regular refilling of prescriptions should work with their doctor to obtain a 3-month supply of medicine prior to the onset of the massive geomagnetic storm.

5. Liquid Cash – A major electrical blackout can deprive individuals from access to their funds. Credit card processing, bank transactions, ATM machine withdrawals, electronic banking, check validation, payroll disbursement and even cash registers are dependent on the availability of electrical power.

This problem can be compounded by the loss of key satellites that form part of the conduit for transmitting financial data. Having available cash on hand can be extremely important during this type of crisis. Obtain funds in the form of cash or traveler’s checks.

6. Water – The loss of electricity may affect city water pumps and water treatment plants that supply individuals with drinking water, along with water for washing dishes and clothes, flushing toilets, bathing and other household needs. Therefore it is important to store as much water as you are able prior to the onset of the geomagnetic storm. The least expensive water is right from the kitchen tap.

Fill up clean kitchen containers and available buckets with water. Fill up your bathtub with water. Bathtub water can
be used to flush toilets and for washing needs. At a bare minimum, you should have enough water to last for three days per person. Generally this will equate to one gallon of water per person per day. A fallback option is to buy bottled water from the stores.

7. Bleach – Access to clean drinking water may become a problem during a major blackout. Purchase several gallons of bleach for use in drinking water purification. Obtain only non-scented regular liquid bleach (such as Clorox) to disinfect water. Avoid purchasing bleach that contains perfumes, dyes, cleaners or other additives.


8. Food – Ensure you have adequate supplies of food available that does not require refrigeration or cooking (e.g. breads, peanut butter, jams, small tins of tuna fish etc.). These are foods that let you fix a decent meal without electricity.

9. Can Opener – If you have stocks of canned foods, ensure that you have a mechanical can opener available. Electric can openers will not work without electricity.

10. The Morning Commute – At the onset of an electrical blackout, most individuals will want to return home before nightfall. Their main obstacle will be global gridlock. Electric commuter trains and subways will grind to an immediate halt. Automobile, taxis and bus traffic in cities will be gridlocked due to inoperative traffic lights. Also the volume of pedestrian traffic will increase and spill over onto the streets further blocking motor vehicle traffic.

Tunnel managers will close down some traffic lanes within tunnels. Generally, tunnel ventilation systems require an extensive amount of electrical power and as a
result many are not connected to electrical backup system.

Therefore, tunnel operators will have to reduce the number of cars allowed through at any given time in order to minimize the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Without electricity, rail traffic will be affected by inoperative railroad crossing signals and railroad stations blackouts. In large cities, many commuters will face reality and simply decide to walk home with some traveling over 160 city blocks on their journey.

If you commute by subway, train, bus or taxi or if you live or work in tall buildings, then I recommend that you either wear or take along a pair of comfortable walking shoes or sneakers to work.

Also carry a flashlight, a couple bottles of water and a small portable radio.

Discuss the potential for an electrical blackout with your children and determine what course of action they should take during a major blackout. It may be difficult to pick up children from school or day care or even communicate with either the school or your children during a blackout.

Work with the school and provide them with written directions, if necessary.

11. Elevators – At the onset of an electrical blackout, people will be trapped in elevators, in underground mines, on roller coasters (some dangling from rides in midair), and inside commuter trains. (Some of these commuters will need to be evacuated from trains stopped in tunnels and between stations.

It can take more than 2 hours for transit workers and emergency personnel to reach some of these trains. Those stranded in tunnels may be in pitch blackness.)

As a general rule, I advise that individuals should not ride on elevators whenever there is a threat of a massive geomagnetic storm. If at all possible take the stairs. If an electrical power outage of this magnitude occurs, you may be stuck in a dark elevator for a very long time, cutoff from the outside world.


12. Airlines – Avoid flying during a massive solar storm with a similar intensity to the Great Solar Storm of 1859. If you chose to fly, you will expose yourself to higher levels of nuclear particle radiation and the electronics within the aircraft will also be subjected to greater failure rate due to this radiation exposure.

The solar storm will adversely affect aircraft communications and navigational signals. On top of this, a major blackout induced by a geomagnetic storm will severely affect operations at multiple airports over vast regions. Aircraft may fly at lower altitudes below 25,000 ft embedding their craft in the shielding afforded by the thicker lower atmosphere and alter their course away from Polar routes to minimize the radiation threat. But the magnitude of this type of solar storm is so great that the threat will be global.

So the question here is “How much do you value your life?” It is best to just avoid traveling by aircraft until the solar storm has run is course and avoid this unnecessary risk.



13. Communications – All types of communication (telephones, cell phones, radio transceivers, and television) may be down for awhile. So before you lose communication, call family and friends and let them know where you are and your plans should a major electrical power outage occur. Also try and hunt down a corded telephone that doesn't require electricity to be used as an emergency backup.


14. Radio – Battery powered or hand crank radios ar e a vital communication/ informational link during a major blackout.

If you don’t own one, I recommend that you buy one. Hand crank radios will continue to operate during a long duration power outage; long after the battery died in other radios. There are a variety of hand crank radios on the market today to choose from.

15. Rechargeable Batteries – In a blackout, it is better to start out with a fully charged set of batteries. Charge all rechargeable batteries (e.g. cell phones, portable computers) that you might need during a blackout.


16. Disconnecting Power – Unplug home electronics (e.g. computers, televisions, radios, satellite receivers) as much as possible. Induced voltage spikes during geomagnetic storms may damage electronics. (Voltage transients have been the death of many pieces of electronics within my home.

As a result, I am a firm believer in voltage line conditioners/regulators.) It just makes common sense to unplug sophisticated electronics during an extreme solar storm.

If you live out in the country and use well water, then I strongly suggest that you also unplug the power line to the well pump. Deep wells make strong earth grounds and you don’t want to take the chance of induced current burning up the pump electronics.

17. Automatic Backup Generators – Some homes, businesses and hospitals have fixed electrical backup generators. Ensure these generators are fully fueled and operational.

18. Aspirin – About 50 years of medical research has shown that geomagnetic storms directly correlate with an increase in heart attacks and strokes. Furthermore these effects appear to be concentrated among the elderly. Anyone over age 35 should take aspirin during the first week following a solar storm.

Unless you have a medical condition that restricts you from using aspirin, I think it may be beneficial to take an aspirin a day. The FDA has approved the use of aspirin to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in people who have had a heart attack, those who have suffered an ischemic stroke, and also those who have had either stable or unstable angina.

19. Buckets – Strong plastic buckets or pails can be very useful to haul water in the event an electrical blackout affects access to clean drinking water. Consider buying some if needed.

20. Vitamins – During a long duration blackout, access to the wide range of foods may become fairly restricted. Your diet may become stressed and deficient in important vitamins and minerals. I recommend purchasing a three month supply of multipurpose vitamins in preparation.

21. Toilet Paper – One day back in the 1970’s, I stopped off at the grocery store on my way home from work. As I entered the store, I noticed something was amiss. The aisles of toilet paper were almost bare and there were a large number of elderly ladies with shopping carts filled with toilet paper in the checkout lane. When I returned to the car, I turned on the radio.

There was a report of a major shutdown at a toilet paper manufacturing facility which was leading to a run on toilet paper. The television news that night showed grannies in the checkout lane battling over rolls of toilet paper. The stories of the plant shutdown turned out to be only false rumors. And life returned back to normal.

Toilet paper is a luxury item that we take for granted. Who am I to argue with thousands of grannies who treat it as a staple of life! So in the run-up to a major blackout make sure that you have sufficient

22. Reading Books – During an extended blackout, you may have plenty of spare time on your hands. I would advise picking up a few good books to read or to read to your children. This may be a good family
bonding experience. Visit a nearby library or bookstore.

23. Pets – If you have pets, you might want to ensure that you have adequate supplies of pet food available.

24. Cold Weather – Imagine your house or apartment without electricity for weeks or months during the winter. In general, this will also equate to a lack of heat because most furnaces need electricity to operate.

In cold climates, during the winter months, this can present a major problem.

Individuals will need warm clothing during the day and warm bedding during the night. This may take the form of wearing multiple layers of clothing. If you are not prepared for this possibility, it may be important to obtain additional warm clothing, blankets (preferably down) or sleeping bags rated for the outdoor temperature range you might potential experience in your neck of the woods.

25. Garage Door – During a blackout, the electric garage door will no longer work. Know how to manually disengage the garage door opener. Hunt down the owner’s manual if you need to or ask a neighbor for help. If you use the garage door as the main point of entry into your home, make sure you carry keys to your front door.


26. Aurora – Experience the power of a Great Aurora. It is definitely beyond a once in a lifetime event, a wonder to behold for both young and old. Expect an early appearance at dusk and then for it to die down but around 3 o’clock in the morning expect a really great explosion of fireworks to light up the sky. Don’t miss it.


27. Power Grid – Several steps are currently employed to respond to moderate solar storms. These protective measures include disconnecting the links between power grids, desensitizing automatic control systems, reconfiguring to provide extra grounding, less switching, fewer large-scale power swaps, and delaying power station maintenance.

But these measures may be insufficient for a massive solar storm.

One other step may be needed called load shedding. It has become accepted and in some cases the preferred practice should be to shut down parts of the system to protect the whole system when there is a danger that operators might well lose the whole system.

Voluntary loading shedding can produce a major inconvenience, but it also protects all kinds of crucial equipment and makes the restoration of power much smoother and quicker.

If a massive solar storm approaches Earth, it seems logical to place most of our entire electrical infrastructure into a safe mode.


It is wiser to take down the power grid in an orderly controlled manner than to allow the grid to be subjected to two days of Geomagnetic Induced Current (GIC) abuse and damage.

This would necessitate major blackouts in this country but the damage from a planned blackout will be significantly less severe than suffering major transformer damage that might take years to recover and place back on-line.



Top 10 Solar Storms and Their Effects on Earth


Photo:REUTERS/Lehtikuva Lehtikuva Aurora Borealis

The Superstorm (August 28, 1859)

This storm was observed world-wide and is, historically, one of the greatest events recorded in the last 150 years. Extensive eyewitness accounts and scientific studies, telegraph disturbances and the unique sighting of a spectacular solar flare make this event one of the most interesting solar storms to read about.



Photo:REUTERS/NASA NASA Aurora Borealis

The Civil War Aurora (December 14, 1862)

This aurora was seen by Civil War soldiers in Fredericksberg Virginia. According to a letter by Milo Grow "There was a brilliant exhibition of Aurora Borealis soon after dark last night. For half an hour it shows very brilliantly reaching to the mid heavens in colors of yellow and red.

" And in the David Ballenger letters "On the night of the second day of the battle there was a singular appearance in the elements, the most singular that I ever saw in my life. Some said it was an Aurora Borealis, or Northern Light, but if it was it was a little different from any I ever saw before. It rose on the side of the enemy and came up very near parallel with our line of battle, and right over us.

It turned as red as blood, but when it commenced rising it looked more like the appearance of the moon rising than anything else I know to compare it to" (1862 December 23). " And by John W. Thompson, Jr. "Louisiana sent those famous cosmopolitan Zouaves called the Louisiana Tigers, and there were Florida troops who, undismayed in fire, stampeded the night after Fredericksburg, when the Aurora Borealis snapped and crackled over that field of the frozen dead hard by the Rappahannock ..." And also in 1905 by Elizabeth Lyle Saxon in A Southern Woman's War Time Reminiscenses " It was near this time that the wonderful spectacle of the Aurora Borealis was seen in the Gulf States.

The whole sky was a ruddy glow as if from an enormous conflagration, but marked by the darting rays peculiar to the Northern light. It caused much surprise, and aroused the fears even of those far from superstitious. I remember an intelligent old Scotch lady said to me, "Oh, child, it is a terrible omen; such lights never burn, save for kings' and heroes' deaths."


Photo:REUTERS/Ho New Solar activities

The Transit of Venus Storm (November 18, 1882)

It produced a compass bearing deflection of nearly 2 degrees, All telegraphic transactions east of the Mississippi River and north of Washington D.C came to a halt. The Chicago stock market was severely affected all day. A large sunspot was then seen covering an area of more than three thousand millions of square miles. Simultaneously with the appearance of the spot, magnetic disturbances at the observatory in Greenwich increased in frequency and violence, other symptoms were noticed throughout the length of the British Isles. Telegraphic communication was greatly interfered with.

The signal bells on many of the railway lines were rung, and some of the operators received shocks from their instruments. Lastly, on November 17, a superb aurora was witnessed, the culminating feature of which was the appearance, at about six o'clock in the evening, of a mysterious beam of greenish light, in shape something like a cigar, and many degrees in length, which rose in the east and crossed the sky at a pace much quicker than but nearly as even as that of sun, moon, or stars, till it set in the west two minutes after its rising.

The daily press was burdened with accounts of widespread magnetic disturbance, in some places telegraphic communication was suspended. In Milwaukee the carbons in the electric lamps were lighted, rendered incandescent by currents of electricity flowing on the wires. At other locations, switchboards in telegraph offices were set on fire and sending keys were melted, while electric balls were seen hovering on the telegraph in Nebraska.

Fountains of super-hot gas blasting high above the Sun's surface

Fountains of super-hot gas blasting high above the Sun's surface could provide new clues to an old astronomic mystery, NASA scientists said September 26, 2000. New observations of the monster gas jets, which rise in arches up to 300,000 miles (482,800 km) above the solar surface, may help answer questions about what makes the Sun's corona - its volatile, immense halo - so infernally hot.

Combo shows TRACE observations of Active Region 9169, made on September 24, 2000. The visible-light image (L) shows a very complicated sunspot group, with lots of small, dark pores (small sunspots, without a penumbra formed by nearly horizontal field surrounding the larger spots).

The 1600A image at center shows that there is much more magnetic field on the solar surface than what can be seen in white light: the entire upper-left area of the region is full of magnetic field that lights up in the ultraviolet light, without a trace in the white light images. Higher up in the atmosphere, the hot corona (R), showing gas at 1 million degrees shows magnetic loops ending in the field on the surface, where the loops are very hot, only the footpoints are seen as the moss-like patterns in the upper left, whereas cooler loops show up along much of their length (lower left and upper right).


The Halloween Storm (October 29, 2003)

This Halloween Storm spawned auroras that were seen over most of North America. Extensive satellite problems were reported, including the loss of the $450 million Midori-2 research satellite. Highly publicized in the news media. A huge solar storm has impacted the Earth, just over 19 hours after leaving the sun.

This is one of the fastest solar storm in historic times, only beaten by the perfect solar storm in 1859 which spent an estimated 17 hours in transit. A few days later on November 4, 2003 one of the most powerful x-ray flares ever detected, swamped the sensors of dozens of satellites, causing satellite operations anomalies….but no aurora. Originally classified as an X28 flare, it was upgrade to X34 a month later.

In all of its fury, it never became a white light flare such as the one observed by Carrington in 1859. Astronauts hid deep within the body of the International Space Station, but still reported radiation effects and ocular 'shooting stars'.


The Easter Sunday Storm (March 25, 1940)

On Easter Sunday calls to grandma by millions of people were halted between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM creating pandemonium at nearly all Western Union offices. [New York Times, March 25, 1940, p. 1]. A telephone cable between Fargo North Dakota and Winnipeg was found with its wires fused together, presumably from the voltage surges. Consolidated Edison of New York also reported 1,500 volt dips in three electrical generators in New York City located in Brooklyn and the Bronx. In Bangor Maine, lightning arresters were burned out as well. The New York Times noted that United Press reported earth currents at 400 Volts in Boston, 450 in Milwaukee, and more than 750 Volts near St. Louis.

All tolled, the Associated Press's entire investment of 185,000 miles of leased wires were put out of service. Practically every long-distance telegraph or telephone office in the country was doing repair work in what was considered one of the worst such events in history. AT&T land lines had been badly disrupted by 600 volt surges on wires designed for 48 volts.

In the Atlantic Cable between Scotland and Newfoundland, voltages up to 2,600 volts were recorded during the storm. Coast Guard radio stations were blocked, although compasses were not affected. Excessive voltage in the Boston and Kene telegraph lines 'blew fuses'. In several instances fuses were 'blown' and vacuum tubes ran the risk of damage due to these influences.


The Playoffs Storm (September 18, 1941)

This storm had the misfortune of occurring during a home game of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the day, baseball fans expected to hear the entire 4:00 PM broadcast on station WUR by Red Barber. With the game tied at 0-0, the station became inaudible for 15 minutes. When it resumed, the Pirates had piled up not just one, but FOUR runs.

Within minutes, thousands of Brooklyn fans had pounded the radio station, demanding an explanation for the 'technical difficulties', only to receive the unsatisfactory answer that the sun was to blame. The effects of the 'sunspots' also appeared in the by-now usual problems with transatlantic short-wave communication to Europe, which was out for most of the day. But the sun wasn't quite finished with New York City after the baseball game 'mishap'. The Brooklyn Dodgers went on to face the New York Yankies in the World Series a few weeks later, but lost seven games to four.


The Acheron Submarine Storm (February 24, 1956)

The February 24, 1956 storm produced the most intense cosmic ray blast ever recorded, but was a nonevent so far as any apparent worldwide disruptions were concerned. The New York Times ran a very short 100-word article on a 'rare aurora' seen in Fairbanks Alaska in the shape of a pure red arc. Later, they announced that 'Suns raging storms photographed in a lengthier article. The aurora was held responsible for the cause of a full-scale Naval alarm for a British submarine which was thought to have disappeared. The Acheron had been expected to report her position at 5:05 EST while on Arctic patrol. When it failed to do so, emergency rescue preparations were begun and both ships and rescue planes began searching the waters between Iceland and Greenland.

The 'missing' submarine turned up four hours later when its transmissions were again picked up. In Boston, Channel 7 TV viewers were treated to broadcasts from Channel 7 in Manchester Vermont while Channel 4 viewers watched a program on the same channel televised from Providence Rhode Island.

A bizarre voice over to a love scene being played out on a local TV channel produced the dialog' Smith gave him a left to the jaw and a short right to the stomach....But darling, we love each other so very much...a left hook to the jaw flattened Smith...Kiss me again my sweet" Amazingly a local weatherman was quoted as saying that aurora were caused by sunlight reflecting off of ice crystals high up in the atmosphere, not realizing that he was resurrecting Captain John Rosse's discredited idea now dead for some 120 years.


The Space Age Storm (August 2, 1972)

Solar astronomers reported that Active Region 331 had produced three powerful flares during a span of 15 hours. The intensity of these flares, classified as 'X2' were near the limits of the scale used to classify solar flare X-ray power. The next day, the Pioneer 9 spacecraft detected a shock wave from the first of these flares at 11:24 UT accompanied by a sudden change in the solar wind speed from 350 to 585 km/sec.

Space weather forecasters at the Space Environment Services Center in Boulder Colorado issued an alert that predicted a major storm would arrive at the earth between August 4. They were not disappointed. Armed with vastly improved technology and scientific ideas, they were able to realize William Ellis's 1882 dream of predicting a solar storm. At 4:00 UT, aurora were seen simultaneously from Illinois to Colorado and the events of this storm were widely reported in major international newspapers.

At 22:30 UT AT&T reported a voltage surge of 60 volts on their coaxial telephone cable between Chicago and Nebraska. Another 30 minute shutdown of phone service on Bell's cable link between Plano, Illinois and Cascade, Iowa was also attributed to the storm. Both the Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation and Canadian National Telecommunications reported that the current surges in their lines had damaged components in their system ranging from noise filters to 'carbon blocks' Taxi drivers received orders from distant cities and were forced to turn down lucrative transcontinental fares! Paul Linger of the Denver Zoo said that the disruption of the Earth's magnetic field by the storms would disorient pigeons who depend upon the field for their sense

The Civil War Aurora (December 14, 1862)

This aurora was seen by Civil War soldiers in Fredericksberg Virginia. According to a letter by Milo Grow "There was a brilliant exhibition of Aurora Borealis soon after dark last night. For half an hour it shows very brilliantly reaching to the mid heavens in colors of yellow and red. " And in the David Ballenger letters "On the night of the second day of the battle there was a singular appearance in the elements, the most singular that I ever saw in my life.

Some said it was an Aurora Borealis, or Northern Light, but if it was it was a little different from any I ever saw before. It rose on the side of the enemy and came up very near parallel with our line of battle, and right over us. It turned as red as blood, but when it commenced rising it looked more like the appearance of the moon rising than anything else I know to compare it to" (1862 December 23). " And by John W. Thompson, Jr. "Louisiana sent those famous cosmopolitan Zouaves called the Louisiana Tigers, and there were Florida troops who, undismayed in fire, stampeded the night after Fredericksburg, when the Aurora Borealis snapped and crackled over that field of the frozen dead hard by the Rappahannock ..." And also in 1905 by Elizabeth Lyle Saxon in A Southern Woman's War Time Reminiscenses "

It was near this time that the wonderful spectacle of the Aurora Borealis was seen in the Gulf States. The whole sky was a ruddy glow as if from an enormous conflagration, but marked by the darting rays peculiar to the Northern light. It caused much surprise, and aroused the fears even of those far from superstitious. I remember an intelligent old Scotch lady said to me, "Oh, child, it is a terrible omen; such lights never burn, save for kings' and heroes' deaths."

Photo:NASA Artist's depiction of solar wind colliding with Earth's magnetosphere.

solarstorms.rog


Massive Solar Flare Misses Earth, but Are We Ready for the Big One?

solar flare


Although yesterday's solar flare won't seriously harm the Earth, the potential for an extreme event is on the rise. Is the world prepared?

By Peter Pachal20digg


Massive Solar Flare Misses Earth, but Are We Ready for the Big One? How to Prepare for a Major Solar Storm

The Sun roared out a huge solar flare yesterday. NASA caught it on film, ranking the spectacular blast as a Class-M flare, just one spot below the the most disruptive type of flare, X. Even so, NASA says it will give Earth a mere "glancing blow," and the National Weather Service expects it will cause only minor disruptions to satellites and power grids.

It could have been much worse. For centuries, solar flares have been responsible for a multitude of earth-bound calamities, from blackouts to disrupted communications to strange lights in the sky. In 1859, the biggest flare on record hit, creating auroras worldwide and interrupting telegraph service for weeks. Considering today's connected world—and our reliance on satellites—a major solar storm could be disastrous.

The sun is entering a particularly active time, says NASA, and big flares like the one from yesterday will likely be common during the next few years, with solar activity expected to peak around 2013. Most solar flares will only cause minor problems with satellites and power grids, but there's always a chance that a monster like the one from 1859 could hit.

"The worst-case scenario is an extreme event," says Michael Hesse, chief of NASA's Space Weather Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "If it were to happen and we don't take any precautions, it would probably knock out our power grid for an extended period of time and destroy a sizable fraction of our satellite infrastructure."

"This is not something we expect to happen tomorrow," he cautions. "But it's like the impact of a hurricane on a specific location. You don't expect it to happen tomorrow, but you might want to think about if it were to happen."



Anatomy of a Solar Flare

It helps to understand just what a solar flare is, and how it affects technology. The initial burst from the surface of the sun sends out massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation, particularly x-rays. These travel toward the earth at the speed of light and can cause some problems with communication, but they're typically temporary and not that serious.

Depending on where the eruption is located on the sun, the flare also creates a huge amount of high-energy particles, which can achieve energies in the order of hundreds of millions of electron volts. That's enough to be "very hazardous to spacecraft," says Michael Hesse.

But that's not the worst of it. A solar flare can also shoot out what's called a "corona mass ejection," a stream of particles that moves much slower than the speed of light but still with enough force to cause serious damage.

Typically, this mass hits the earth about one to three days after the initial flare. How fast it gets here depends on the magnitude of the burst, and the faster it goes, the greater the danger. However, not all ejections actually hit the earth. Hesse estimates about one in ten flare ejections impact the earth. The ejection from yesterday's flare will apparently miss.

If a corona ejection is powerful enough, and the earth is in its path, look out. Satellites are the most threatened, for obvious reasons, and a serious flare could damage or even destroy them, Hesse says. For regular people, that could mean no GPS, no satellite TV or radio, and disrupted communications for anything that relies on satellites as part of its network.

The consequences to businesses can be even more severe, as satellites and GPS are intertwined with many other industries. For example, companies use GPS to time-stamp financial transactions.

"Satellites can get irradiated," Hesse explains. "Radiation levels in the magnetosphere can increase substantially, and that can be harmful to satellites. GPS can be substantially affected. Devices will lose lock."

The interaction between the corona ejection and the earth's atmosphere and magnetic field is how solar flares affect the power grid. When those particles hit the ionosphere, they create a voltage between the atmosphere and the earth. As a result, power systems that use the earth as a grounding voltage (read: all of them) no longer work properly, which can disrupt power delivery to large areas.

Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field shield the surface from any direct effects of a solar flare. Generally, terrestrial communication such as cell-phone networks (2G, 3G, and 4G), TV and radio broadcasting, and Wi-Fi aren't affected much by solar storms, if at all. However, if the power grid goes down for extended periods, so too will wireless networks and cell-phone towers. And good luck switching on your TV or radio.

Preparing for the Worst

So how can we prepare for the very real possibility of "the big one"—a colossal solar storm hitting the earth in the next few years? Satellite owners (including the government) can do two things: first, they can harden their birds to be resistant to radiation, which can be expensive. Second, when data suggests a solar flare is about to strike, they can switch off as many systems as possible on the satellites, since typically they're more likely to fail when energized.

Power plants have a much more troublesome dilemma in the event of a major storm. Faced with a potentially massive blackout that could last for days or weeks, they may need to contemplate a rolling, controlled blackout for the duration of a massive solar flare.

"A controlled blackout is much better than a power outage that takes weeks or months," says Hesse. "If you know in advance, you can bring down the load. In the extreme case, it may be the lesser evil. Of course, a decision like that has to based on very, very solid evidence."

The key to having that evidence is refined science in predicting solar flares. While progress is being made, Hesse says predictive models for space weather aren't anywhere near the accuracy of those used for the terrestrial variety.

"I think the National Weather Service does a good job forecasting weather. Space weather is not a mature science. We actually have many things that we don't really understand properly. We're doing a pretty good job, but we need to do more to be able to really say with confidence, 'Tomorrow at this time, it would be a good idea if this satellite system were turned off.'"

Preparing for the Worst

So how can we prepare for the very real possibility of "the big one"—a colossal solar storm hitting the earth in the next few years? Satellite owners (including the government) can do two things: first, they can harden their birds to be resistant to radiation, which can be expensive. Second, when data suggests a solar flare is about to strike, they can switch off as many systems as possible on the satellites, since typically they're more likely to fail when energized.

Power plants have a much more troublesome dilemma in the event of a major storm. Faced with a potentially massive blackout that could last for days or weeks, they may need to contemplate a rolling, controlled blackout for the duration of a massive solar flare.

"A controlled blackout is much better than a power outage that takes weeks or months," says Hesse. "If you know in advance, you can bring down the load. In the extreme case, it may be the lesser evil. Of course, a decision like that has to based on very, very solid evidence."

The key to having that evidence is refined science in predicting solar flares. While progress is being made, Hesse says predictive models for space weather aren't anywhere near the accuracy of those used for the terrestrial variety.

"I think the National Weather Service does a good job forecasting weather. Space weather is not a mature science. We actually have many things that we don't really understand properly. We're doing a pretty good job, but we need to do more to be able to really say with confidence, 'Tomorrow at this time, it would be a good idea if this satellite system were turned off.'"

Auroras a Sure Bet Over Poker Flat


A HUGE solar flare blasted from the sun's surface at 3.1million miles per hour on Monday - and it's heading in our direction.

It sounds like the plot of a blockbuster disaster movie, but here Sun professor Brian Cox explains why there is no need to panic.

THE sun is a giant nuclear reactor the size of a million earths.

It is a giant, violent cauldron of decimated atoms and, occasionally, it has a spot of bad weather.

On Monday the bad weather arrived in magnificent style as a billion tons of superheated matter were blasted into space in a spectacular event known as a solar flare.

Here on earth we won't feel a thing - it is relatively small and the explosion did not point directly at us. If you live in the far north you might see the Northern Lights dancing across the sky as increased numbers of high-energy particles smash into Earth's magnetic field.

Sun Professor ... Brian Cox
Sun Professor ... Brian Cox
The largest solar flare in recent history is known as the Carrington Flare. On September 1, 1859, English astronomer Richard Carrington observed a series of flashes over a group of dark areas on the sun's surface, known as sunspots.

The darkened skies of London were bathed in a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, which are rarely visible from southern Britain. It was said that you could read a newspaper by their light.

But there is a much more threatening side. In 1859 the entire telegraph system failed as powerful electrical currents swept through the wires. Operators got electric shocks and the paper caught fire.

If a Carrington-sized flare hit today, it is thought that a large fraction of the satellites in orbit may be permanently damaged, leading to a communications blackout and potential chaos.

Fortunately, these massive explosions occur only once every 500 years, but this week's little blip serves as a reminder of the power of our nearby, friendly yet threatening star.



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