Solar storm could cause ‘catastrophic damage’ to UK
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Among the various threats lurking in the depths of space – from rogue asteroids to wandering black holes – solar storms strike incredibly close to home. Triggered by blasts of electromagnetic radiation, plasma and charged particles from the Sun, these space weather events have the potential to knock out satellites or disrupt power grids. When a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted from the Sun in 1989, the event caused a nine-hour blackout of the Hydro-Quebec system in Canada and stranded millions of people in darkness. And that wasn’t even the worst possible outcome.
In the last 200 years, astronomers have recorded two solar storms responsible for global disruptions.
The biggest of the two was the so-called Carrington Event of 1859.
After a particularly powerful CME struck the planet, the resulting solar storm caused telegraph wires across North America and Europe to sparkle and burn out.
Today, a Carrington-level event would likely bring down the internet, knock out GPS satellites and trigger global power blackouts – and the bad news is one such storm came dangerously close to happening in 2012.
A major solar storm could cripple US infrastructure and the economy (Image: NASA/GETTY)
Solar activity can have an impact on spacecraft and ground infrastructure (Image: NASA)
According to the US space agency NASA, the Earth experienced “a close shave just as perilous” as the threat of an “asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century”.
But the threat did not come from a rogue space rock, but rather from a CME that crossed the Earth’s orbit on July 23, 2012.
A two years after scientists analysed the potential fallout, Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado said: “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.”
Luckily for us, the CME swung past the planet without landing a glancing blow.
Instead, the blast of plasma and magnetic field washed over the STEREO-A spacecraft.
Observatory captures INTENSE solar storm
Physicists examined the CME and in 2014 compiled a grim report about the damage it may have caused to Earth’s infrastructure.
According to their report, the total economic impact of the storm would have surpassed £1.45trillion ($2trillion).
Another paper, published four years ago in the journal of the American Geophysical Union, found the economic costs of a solar storm blackout could cost £30billion ($41.5billion) every single day.
Dr Baker said: “I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did.
“If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”
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Sun fact sheet: Incredible facts about the star in our solar system (Image: EXPRESS)
A NASA image of a coronal mass ejection from the Sun (Image: NASA)
The CME would have initially disrupted GPS signals and trigger radio blackouts, throwing the world into a state of chaos.
Then, as the bulk of solar material directly crashed into the atmosphere, the experts predicted widespread power blackouts would disable virtually “everything that plugs into a wall socket”.
According to NASA, the CME would have even disabled basic amenities like toilets because urban water suppliers rely on electric pumps.
More recently, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have published a paper in which they identified solar storms as the single biggest threat to the worldwide web.
In the study, Computer Science expert Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi said the impact from a major solar storm could leave between 20 and 40 million people without access to power for as long as two years.
Professor Jyothi wrote: “Astrophysicists estimate the likelihood of a solar storm of su$cient strength to cause catastrophic disruption occurring within the next decade to be 1.6 to 12 percent.
“Paying attention to this threat and planning defences against it, like our preliminary effort in this paper, is critical for the long-term resilience of the Internet.”
Country’s like the US and UK have taken some steps to prepare for a solar storm blackout.
In the UK for instance, Mark Prouse, deputy director of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said National Grid is stockpiling spare transformers and carrying out drills for such an eventuality.
Space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also studying the Sun up close to better understand how we can forecast solar storms well in advance.