Scientist Fears His Warnings of Devastating Geomagnetic Storms Will Go Unheard
An 1859 solar storm that came to be known as the Carrington Event was so powerful that the night sky was lit up by aurora from the North Pole all the way down to South America, reportedly allowing people to read newspapers by the light of aurora in the night.
The Carrintgon Event is regarded as the largest geomagnetic solar storm known to hit Earth. But University of Colorado solar scientist Daniel Baker contends that a solar storm in July 2012 was even more powerful than the Carrington Event, and had it hit Earth, it would have caused widespread technological disaster by short-circuiting satellites, blowing out power grids and transformers and shorting ground-based communications that could have put aircraft crews and astronauts at risk.
Baker is on a crusade to get policy makers to pay attention to space weather and the potentially devastating impacts it can have on Earth, but he fears that until something bad does happen, his words will go unheard.
"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 in a statement. "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."
This week at the 46th Annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union held in San Francisco, Baker will give a presentation detailing the situation.
The type of solar storms Baker is worried about are coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. Typically, it takes an Earth-bound CME up to three days to reach the planet. But the large CME in 2012 was so powerful it traveled from the Sun's surface to near Earth in just 18 hours. This CME was the most powerful ever recorded, and had it directly hit Earth, it would have caused a significant geomagnetic storm.
"The speed of this event was as fast or faster than anything that has been seen in the modern space age," said Baker. He and his colleagues suggest that the 2012 event be put forth at the best estimate of a worst-case scenario space weather event.
"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."
When the Carrington Event occurred in the summer of 1859, telegraph systems - the equivalent of the Internet of the age - were disrupted around the world, and fires in various telegraph offices resulted in several deaths, Baker said.
In 1989 a strong CME triggered a geomagnetic storm that shorted the Hydro-Quebec electrical system, resulting in 6 million people losing power for at least nine hours. 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," Baker said. "Rather than wait and pick up the pieces, we ought to take lessons from these events to prepare ourselves for inevitable future solar storms."