EVENT OF HORIZON
Maximum PC|October 2021
Ian Evenden explains how the Sun could one day take out our electronics and communications technology in mere moments
Ian Evenden

EARTH, SEPTEMBER 1ST, 1859. Colors flash through the night sky above New England, gold miners in the Rocky Mountains are woken by the brightness of the Northern Lights, visible as far south as the Caribbean. Telegraph operators across the world receive electric shocks from their equipment, which continues to operate, despite being disconnected from the power supply.

The Sun, August 31st, 1859. A complex system of magnetic field lines suddenly twists, releasing a large quantity of plasma into space. This takes 17 hours to cross the 93 million miles to the Earth, which is at just the right place in its orbit to be hit by what today we’d call a coronal mass ejection.

The largest geomagnetic storm on record, the Carrington Event caused widespread electrical disruption and power blackouts in an electrical grid that was primitive compared to today’s complex system.

Should it happen again, the consequences could be catastrophic. A 2013 research project from Lloyds of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research in the United States estimated the cost to the US alone could be $2.6 trillion.

At the peak of its activity, the Sun belches out as many as three coronal mass ejections every day. One only just missed us in 2012, and if it struck today, the damage would be incalculable.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

In their day-to-day lives, our PCs and other electrical equipment are unlikely to come into contact with charged particles, but every now and then, the Sun reaches out to touch us. Protected in the Earth’s magnetic bubble, we don’t often notice the effects of the solar wind unless we live far enough north (or south, hello readers in New Zealand) to see the aurora. Our Sun is, compared to other places in the Universe, a relatively placid, middle-aged star, but occasionally it can surprise us.

The Sun operates on an 11-year cycle. In 1859, it was approaching the middle of this cycle, the time of greatest activity. Astronomers, equipped with ever-improving telescopes, were starting to take more of an interest in the Sun around this time, and the first observation of a solar flare was made on September 1st that year by the astronomers Richard Carrington (for whom the solar storm is named) and (independently) Richard Hodgson, both based in southern England.

That flare, which Carrington observed by projecting the output of his telescope onto a screen through a broad-band filter (remember, never look at the Sun with the naked eye, or with any kind of magnifying equipment, or indeed with anything other than an approved solar filter) turned out to be enormous, a white light flare of extraordinary intensity.

Solar flares are associated with coronal mass ejections, and both are common when sunspots are on display, as these temporary, dark patches are signifiers of magnetic activity on the star’s surface. As the 11-year cycle goes on, the sunspot count moves from none, sometimes for hundreds of days at a time, to anything up to several hundred at once.

OF SUNSPOTS AND CMES

Nobody was counting sunspots in 1859, though they were known to Chinese astronomers back in antiquity, and were mentioned by the Ancient Greeks. They were first drawn (that we know of) by an English monk in 1128. It took until 1610 to get a telescope on them, which is fair enough as the instrument was only patented in 1608, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the astronomer William Herschel was able to associate sunspots with varying levels of solar activity. His hypothesis that an absence of sunspots led to higher wheat prices on the market, was widely ridiculed at the time.

While the precise nature of sunspots is still a matter of research and debate, it seems like he was right. Solar minima lead to cooler years, on average, which would have made wheat harvest smaller, pushing prices up. Fossil records suggest this cycle has been stable (between nine and 14 years, for an average of 11) for 700 million years. We’re currently in an active, warm period, similar to that around the year 1000. There have been extended cool, low activity periods in the past too, most recently the ‘little ice age’ that ran from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Sunspots appear to be the visible effect of magnetic flux tubes in the Sun’s convective zone—an unstable layer just below the star’s surface that’s churning with convection currents as heat and other forms of energy are sent out by the fusion reactor running at its core. They are twisted and wound by differential rotation—different areas and depths of the Sun don’t all rotate at the same speed.

So what happens when the irresistible force of the Sun’s plasma ejection hits the immovable object of the Earth’s magnetic field? “These large eruptions release large amounts of hot material called plasma,” says Dr. Ravindra Desai of Imperial College London, who previously worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, Maryland. Among other interests, Desai attempts to forecast the Sun’s activity, a phenomenon known as space weather.

“When the plasma strikes Earth, it’s deflected by the planet’s magnetic field,” he says. “The Earth protects us from the majority of the onslaught, but the plasma flows along those magnetic field lines and causes the Aurora Borealis which is a wonderful thing to see, but it also causes [electrical] current systems in the ionosphere and the ground. They aren’t dangerous to human beings, but can knock out power stations and satellites.”

This happened in 1989, when a billion-ton cloud of plasma was ejected from a powerful explosion on the Sun at a million miles per hour. Two days later, it struck the Earth, sending aurora as far south as Cuba and causing the entire Canadian province of Quebec to lose power for 12 hours after its transformers blew. Electrical grids across the United States also saw drops in their power output, with over 200 incidents reported. Luckily, the US had enough power in reserve to keep the lights on. Satellites tumbled out of control, and the orbiting Space Shuttle Discovery developed a mysterious fault in one of its hydrogen tanks that disappeared at the same time the storm abated.

While the 2012 event missed the Earth by approximately nine days, it instead hit the STEREO-A spacecraft, part of a pair of sun-observing probes that orbit both ahead of and behind the Earth to provide a stereoscopic image of the Sun. STEREO-A (the probe ahead of the Earth) was largely undamaged by the plasma due to not being within a magnetic field at the time, but the failure of STEREO B led to the ending of the mission in 2018.

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