The Dark Side of the Sun
Living in Britain there is one thing you can always count on – rain. A lot of the time rain comes in heavy storms and when the heavens open it comes down in buckets. However, in 2013 the UK could be facing a very different kind of storm. This year there is due to be a solar maximum, where the sun’s activity will be at its highest for a while. With solar storms having the potential to wreak havoc on satellites, electricity grids and avionic transport, a rain storm doesn’t seem so bad.
A solar storm is the term used to describe a mass ejection of high energy particles from the sun’s surface. This expulsion includes charged particles such as protons and electrons, as well as electromagnetic waves. Normally the electromagnetic waves ejected from the sun are visible light and radio waves. However, during a solar maximum, when the sun’s activity is particularly high, the electromagnetic waves ejected can be more dangerous variants such as X- or Gamma rays. This could have disastrous effects on technology that relies on satellites such as communication, the internet, and GPS. This is obviously a massive concern for us, so much so that extreme space weather now features as an element in the UK’s National Risk Assessment. Dr Jonathan Eastwood, a research fellow in Space and Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London, commented on the matter saying, “at the moment, the Earth’s magnetic field is deflecting the solar material around the Earth, and scientists in the UK and around the world are monitoring the situation to see if our magnetic field will hold up. There is a good chance that the magnetic field’s protection could break down in a solar storm.”
The last solar storm that caused considerable damage was known as the Carrington event in 1859, first spotted by Richard Carrington. As solar maxima occur every 100 to 200 years, evidence is suggesting with high probability that there will be another in 2013.With our reliance on technology having increased almost exponentially since 1859, the damage could be catastrophic. While it has the potential to be devastating, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s recent report on the effect of solar storms on British infrastructure, we’re more prepared for such an event than one might think. There is approximately a 20 hour delay between observing a solar flare and the storm reaching the Earth. The National Grid has a mitigation strategy in place, whereby sources of reserve power are in place so that the Grid isn’t totally reliant on transformers which would be very vulnerable to harm in such an event. Avionic transport such as planes have emergency procedures in the advent of a solar storm at short notice. Satellites are even being assessed to deduce their survivability in a solar storm and mitigation procedures will be put in place for older satellites that are considered to be borderline.
While a solar storm sounds fairly alarming, it is by no means a Mayan apocalypse round two. British infrastructure is prepared for such an event. Despite solar storms being a lot more violent, more damage is probably caused to a person by a regular rain storm, and scientists and science journalists alike don’t seem too concerned about those!