Largest magnetic storm of the season to strike this weekend

On Thursday July 12, 2012 the sun let loose with a huge solar flare and coronal mass ejection. The X1.4 class solar flare emerged from a sunspot in active region 1520 at 12:11Pm EDT. 

The flare unleashed a staggering amount of energy roughly equivalent to a billion hydrogen bombs. That energy is now headed toward the Earth at a blistering 850 miles per second.

Solar scientists are expecting a moderately severe magnetic storm when the CME strikes the Earth’s magnetic field this weekend.  Alex Young of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center stated, “This could produce auroras as far south as northern California and Alabama [and] into central UK and Europe or southern New Zealand.”

As previously discussed on this blog, geomagnetic storms can disrupt electrical and communication systems that are vital to the operation of data centers and other mission critical facilities.

Solar scientists warn that this magnetic storm could lead to intermittent satellite/radio navigation problems, surface charging on satellites and power grid fluctuations.

There’s a Little Black Spot on the Sun Today

Astounding Photo of Massive Sunspot Cluster (Active Region 1476)

Astrophotographer Thierry Legault captured this amazing shot of Sunspot Cluster (Active Region 1476).

This sunspot cluster is approximately 120,000 miles across.  The big spot on the spinward side is roughly 60,000 miles across.  When you consider that the Earth is only 8,000 miles wide you start to understand how truly massive these structures are. 

Despite its staggering size and high magnetic activity levels, this sunspot cluster has been relatively quiet.  The spot has produced a number of small flares but nothing close to the X class flares or CMEs that can disrupt terrestrial communications and utility power.  The strongest flare from this spot so far was an M1.4 class flare on 2012 May 5.

Hopefully, 1476 will remain mild-mannered despite its size. 

Also shown in this magnificent photo is the new Chinese space station.  If you look carefully directly west of the sunspot cluster you can pick out a small winged shape.  That’s Tiangong-1, the first module of China’s planned space station transiting the sun.

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12% Chance of Grid Crippling Solar Storm in Next 10 Years

Today another stunning Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) erupted from the Sun’s corona.  Fortunately, the massive flare was not directed at the Earth. 

A CME like this sends a cannonball of superheated plasma, energetic particles and radiation barreling through space.  If the Earth is unlucky enough to be in the path of one of these monsters the consequences can be dire.  Notable effects can include spectacular auroras, widespread communication failures and massive blackouts.

In 1859 a large solar storm struck the earth in an event known as the Carrington Event.  The Carrington flare caused telegraph stations to burst into flame due to induced currents in the copper transmission lines.  Auroras caused by the event were seen as far south as Havana. 

In 1921, another huge solar storm and geomagnetic event struck the Earth.  John Kappenmann, from the Metatech Corporation (and co-author of the NASA/NRC report on the economic impact of space weather), modeled the 1921 storm on the modern power grid.  The map of power system collapse and utility transformer damage is a stark warning of the threat of space weather to power distribution systems. 

 

More recently, in 1989 a large flare caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid.

In 2008 solar scientists predicted that a Carrington scale solar event today could cause blackouts effecting 130 million people and result in economic losses of “$1 trillion to $2 trillion during the first year alone…with recovery times of 4 to 10 years.”

So, the consequences of the Earth being struck by a massive solar storm are potentially severe.  But such an event can surely be classified as a High Impact/ Low Probability/ (HILP) event, Right?  Not so fast my friend.  Pat Riley, a predictive science expert, just published a paper in the scientific journal, SPACE WEATHER: THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF RESEARCH AND APPLICATIONS in February of 2012.  In his paper Riley places the “Probability of a Carrington event occurring over next decade is ~12%”

Around 12%!  Yikes! Those Doomsday Preppers on NatGeo may be on to something.

I outlined the near earth and terrestrial effects of a massive solar flare/geomagnetic storm in my blog here.

I covered the potential effects of space weather on the infrastructure that supports data centers for Mission Critical Magazine here