To mark the ten-year anniversary of the solar storm that struck Earth, a new study was published in Nature Geoscience Tuesday, with the aim of helping scientists understand how powerful these storms really were.
The storm that struck on Sept. 2, 1859, and remains the most powerful solar storm known to have struck Earth, permanently disabling communications and knocking out telegraph services. While damaging in the short term, the damage from the superflare itself, which ripped a hole through the sun’s ozone layer, was far from over. For several weeks afterward, powerful afterglows littered the skies, a legacy of ash and particles that lingered for decades.
“Because of the long-term damage that these superflares can cause, many scientists believe it prudent to remain cautious as they investigate any hazards they might have associated with nearby solar eruptions,” says principal investigator Kristina Soloviev, a physicist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who is working on a study of a near-by space storm called the coronal mass ejection (CME).
Soloviev’s own work on the sunspot — which sits on the moon’s orbit and is much less energetic than the sun itself — was first challenged when a chunk of carbon found by NASA’s Pioneer mission through an instrument on the spacecraft struck the moon, then burned up on re-entry. Scientists had expected a giant coronal mass ejection — a solar storm that would travel in all directions and leave a ring of charged particles at its center. But the energy of the blast created by the sun’s energy ejection didn’t match the charged particles’ expected path through the solar wind.
By analyzing the resulting motion of the spacecraft, which was then used to create three-dimensional space weather artwork that simulated a superflare, Soloviev and her colleagues found evidence of a magnetic field that connected the southern hemisphere with the poles. This was significant, but not surprising, since a magnetic field typically shields Earth from natural disasters.
“For a large (>10-kilometer) storm to reach this far south, the Earth must be very far south in the arc of the moon,” says Soloviev. “If the poles are moving very quickly, the magnetic field will have been very quiet.”
A major hurricane won’t fly south of the equator, and a historic encounter between Hurricane Wilma and Hurricane Andrew struck in 1858. A tropical system from the Indian subcontinent, larger than the globe, and widely separated into two distinct phases, makes this the closest approach to the possibility of a near-future hurricane. And the study shows there is no reason we shouldn’t consider a superflare as a possible outcome.
“The results are fascinating,” says Michael F. Klosowski, a hurricane researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and they “prove that a near-future superflare would not be very threatening to southern California. Of course, there is no guarantee it will occur, but the results are fascinating,” says Klosowski.
A superflare would vindicate the doomsday preppers.
“Hurricanes are historically common, but with some risk, especially in the Atlantic basin,” Klosowski says. “Are we going to have another one in the Southern Hemisphere? Maybe. But it’s never too late to prepare.”
Right now, the only way to protect ourselves from a hurricane is to become familiar with how to keep an eye on coolant — a skill that could come in handy should the need arise. Of course, the future could be rather different: There could be far worse hurricanes on the horizon, or perhaps there’s not been enough research into making sure a superflare would not directly hit the planet.
Still, the possibilities of a near-future storm system that strikes at the South Pole or other parts of the world are too exciting to ignore. The chances that such a storm will coincide with El Niño, or abnormally warm waters in the equatorial Pacific, are low, but Fakhour, the lead researcher on the project, says they’re going to get a bump in the coming years.
“The big-deal announcement in June or July of the first or second half of a La Niña year, was always going to be the bane of many an aerospace engineer,” he says. “But it turned out to be a fluke, and we may just have to live with it.”
“For a large (>10-kilometer) storm to reach this far south, the Earth must be very far south in the arc of the moon,” says Soloviev. “The big-deal announcement in June or July of the first or second half of a La Niña year, was always going to be the bane of many an aerospace engineer,” he says. “But it turned out to be a fluke, and we may just have to live with it.”
Exactly how a near-future ocean hurricane formed is a key question: How does the sun, Earth, and other stars behave on a given day? There’s no time to spare. To make a long story short, the results presented here are impressive. From the first contact, the scientists had a rough idea of what the underlying physics in the planet’s outer planets are. And based on what we know about the sun, they were getting closer and warmer.
*This article was written by a GPT-2 neural network. All information in this story is most likely false, and all opinions expressed are fake. Weird to think about…
Code for this project available on github: