By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
The images, when they were posted on the web, were awe-inspiring and a little bit frightening.
On June 7, a coronal mass ejection, a massive energy eruption on the surface of the sun, sent cosmic energy flying through space and toward Earth.
Because of our advanced space photography, we could see the explosion in great detail. The image resembled what it would look like if someone had thrown a rock into a pond filled with red water, and the reactive energy was high and spread out.
The energy from coronal mass ejections takes an average of three days to reach us, and this CME struck our magnetic field at around 1 p.m. EST on June 10, said Mike Hapgood, head of the Space Environment Group at RAL Space, in Oxford, England.
The good news is that almost nothing happened.
"I think it's a wonderful event. It is spectacular in the imagery, but I think there is a kind of an element of: A) it largely missed and B) when it got here, it was ineffective," said Hapgood, a visiting professor at Lancaster University and an international authority on space weather.
There are reasons for that. One, when the solar mass left the sun, it was ejected from a part of the sun with a northward-facing magnetic field. The side of earth facing the sun also has a northerly directed field. So, when the coronal mass ejection struck our magnetic field on June 10, the two northern facing fields just bounced off one another.
Secondly, the coronal mass ejection struck us at an oblique angle, bouncing off of our magnetic field and doing little damage.
WHEN LUCK RUNS OUT
But all of that could change as simply as you flip a coin.
One, we are just in the beginning stages of the most recent 11-year solar weather cycle, which began in January of 2008. More of these ejections are likely on the way, and we might not be so lucky the next time.
If a coronal mass ejection were to leave the sun with a southern-facing magnetic field and strike us more directly, it would temporarily unpeel the Earth's magnetic field. That's a phenomena scientists call magnetic reconnection, when the Earth's magnetic field breaks apart and reforms.
As fantastic as that sounds, it has happened before. The most impactful coronal mass ejection in recorded memory was the Carrington Event, so named for the English vicar who recorded it in 1859. Back in Carrington's day, the coronal mass ejection fried telegraph wires in the United Kingdom and the United States. In our modern world, with grids of electronic transformers, satellite networks, and financial and communications systems that depend on electronic trading and transmission, the results could well be catastrophic.
The worst modern occurrence of a CME knocked out power for some residents of Quebec for as long as six days in 1989. Longer blackouts over a wider area are possible and could wreak all kinds of havoc, according to Lloyd's and sources with other major carriers.
That's why Hapgood and others are pushing to strengthen our global alert network for solar storms. The International Space Environment Service has established 13 global space weather warning and data sharing centers around the world.
Hapgood and other scientists are also trying to advance their knowledge of the nature of coronal mass ejections to be able to forecast whether they have south-facing magnetic fields, and thus warn operators of satellites and commercial and scientific users that depend on the space weather warning service.
"It is a research goal to be able to predict the magnetic field direction at Earth given what we know of conditions on the sun, Hapgood said.
"The northerly and southerly fields occur in equal proportions, but what we see today appears random because we can't yet do the physics well. But a lot of folks are now working on this," Hapgood said.
June 20, 2011
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