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Here Comes the Sun
although the date would stump most trivia buffs, September 2, 1859, is when the greatest magnetic storm ever recorded hit the Earth. It is also the date likeliest to be replayed in 2012, with one important difference: this time, the devastation will be colossal.
The Carrington event, named after Richard Carrington, the amateur British astronomer who took the lead in observing and explaining it, was actually a one-two punch that uppercut the Earth over the course of a week. The first of the two massive solar explosions began forming some-time in mid-August 1859, when an unusually large sunspot appeared on the northwest portion of the Sun's face. On August 27, it erupted like a zit, shooting out a Moon-sized glob of plasma, or supercharged gas. Such blasts are known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
CMEs are usually shaped like croissants, according to a discovery made in 2009 by STEREO, a pair of NASA probes that flank the Sun and photograph these explosions from opposite sides. According to Angelos Vourlidas of the Naval Research Laboratory, a computer model designer for the STEREO mission, CMEs are formed in a manner akin to that of twisting the ends of a rope around and around, tighter and tighter, until the middle bulges out. Instead of rope, Slinky-like lines of magnetic force twist out of the sunspots. Eventually, after enough twisting, the crescent-shaped coil of plasma snaps free and spins away from the Sun at a million miles per hour or more, which is just what happened in the Carrington event.
The first cosmic croissant of the Carrington event hit Earth the next day, August 28, 1859, causing some of the most beautiful auroras ever seen. The northern lights don't normally extend down to Havana, Cuba, but this time they did, making the sky there appear as though it were stained with blood and on fire.
On September 1, 1859, the Sun erupted again, even more furiously. According to scientists' reconstructions, the second Carrington CME was dozens of times more powerful than average, weighing in at about 10 billion tons and 10 trillion trillion watts (trillions of times more than the sum total of all electrical, mechanical, combustible, muscular, animal, and plant energy than has been produced or consumed in the history of the planet). Traveling at about 5 million miles per hour, it was also one of the fastest ever recorded. Think of a tennis ball machine suddenly rifling out a (molten, radioactive) basketball.
When CMEs launch, they create a shockwave that slaps the solar wind, a sphere of charged particles, mostly protons. This impact causes what is known as an SEP (solar energetic particle) event, which accelerates everything in its path exponentially; most of these supercharged particles take an hour or less to reach the Earth's atmosphere, where they fuse nitrogen and oxygen atoms to create nitrates, which eventually settle as dust onto the poles. Although the Carrington SEP is generally considered the largest on record, back then no one noticed it because there were no instruments sensitive enough to detect it. (Evidence of the 1859 SEP impact has since been found in anomalous nitrate-laden ice core samples that date back to that time.) Today, there are satellite-borne instruments sensitive enough to detect SEPs, most of which would probably have been fried by the Carrington event's ferocity. Indeed, far lesser SEPs are blamed for having disabled a number of spacecraft, including Japan's Nozomi satellite, dooming that nation's mission to Mars. SEPs also threaten astronauts; a Carrington-scale event would imperil those aboard the International Space Station.
At 4:50 GMT on September 2, 1859, the second and by far the more powerful Carrington CME barreled into the Earth, fifteen to twenty hours behind the SEP shockwave it had detonated. The CME made quite a splash in the headlines, sizzling telegraph wires, causing fires, and filling the sky with an auroral glow that made midnight as bright as noon.
"The electricity that attended this beautiful phenomenon took possession of the magnetic wires throughout the country, and there were numerous side displays in the telegraph offices where fantastical and unreadable messages came through the instruments, and where the atmospheric fireworks assumed shape and substance in brilliant sparks," reported the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The electrical blasts were so powerful that some telegraph operators disconnected the batteries to their equipment and were still able to send and receive messages just operating on the power that was heavenly supplied.
Were we hit today by a geomagnetic storm of equivalent strength to the Carrington event, our civilization could well be plunged into chaos. This is not an exaggeration. Rather, it is the consensus of those who presented at the National Academy of Sciences' report Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, published in December 2008. The report's executive summary says:
Because of the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures in modern society, the impacts of severe space weather events can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term as well as to long-term collateral socioeconomic disruptions. Electric power is modern society's cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend...Collateral effects of a longer-term outage [such as would almost certainly result from a Carrington-scale space weather event] would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration. The resulting loss of services for a significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international impact as well.
Contributors from NASA, NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), the Smithsonian Institution, the United States Air Force, a number of major universities, and advanced technology corporations gave evidence that a contemporary Carrington-scale event would lead to deep and widespread social disruption. Basic to this contention are the enormous changes to the United States' infrastructure over the past century and a half. Modern society is utterly dependent on electricity. The electrical system is the master system upon which all others depend. And it is vulnerable to historically large space weather events.
"Emergency services would be strained, and command and control might be lost," concludes the committee of National Academy of Sciences researchers, chaired by Daniel Baker, director of LASP, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Baker's concern about the consequences of space weather is quite a turnabout for LASP researchers. Readers of my previous book might recall the part where I attended a solar physics conference in Colorado sponsored by LASP, only to find that the scientists assembled there were utterly indifferent to a space weather freak-out occurring even as they met. The week of September 7-13, 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina and just before Rita and Wilma, goes down as one of the stormiest periods ever recorded on the Sun, but at the LASP conference, which began on September 13, no one even mentioned this astonishing situation, not even during the coffee breaks.
What no one at LASP or any other space laboratory has ever disagreed with, however, is that the fiercest solar storms usually occur at the climax of the eleven-year solar cycle, which, by general scientific consensus, is next due in late 2012 or early 2013.
Space Weather Blues
With so much hanging in the balance, one might think there would be legions of space weather experts scanning the sky for signs of impending catastrophe, that the best and the brightest would be lining up for a chance, quite literally, to save the world. But much of the talk at the May 2008 workshop that gave rise to the National Academy of Sciences' report was about how hard it is to get people interested in space weather. Students don't sign up for the classes, and when, in rare instances, such coursework is required, their eyes glaze over, according to Paul Kintner, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University.
The air force, responsible for all U.S. assets in space, has tried to overcome this indifference by offering extended space weather education at air force expense, but the number of expert space weather forecasters has nonetheless declined steadily.
"The DOD is striving to increase the sampling of the space weather environment for the coming solar maximum [in 2011-2012] and beyond," says Major Herbert Keyser, United States Air Force Weather Agency. However, he also notes that expertise in space weather is a national resource that is quickly disappearing.
European efforts aren't going any better, their space weather activities being described as "complicated" and "highly fragmented." Russia has a creditable program, as do China, India, and Japan, though most of this effort seems oriented toward their respective space programs rather than protecting us here on the ground.
Why so ho-hum? For one thing, there's almost no budget. The world's principal supplier of space weather information, the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), operated by NOAA, has what was referred to as an "unstable budget of $6 to $7 million per year." True, the SWPC shares resources with NASA and also the Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA), but still, given the stakes involved, it's a piddling amount. The deeper reason, one suspects, is that we have not really gotten whacked yet, not hard like the way an 1859 or 1921 storm would, in the Internet Age, be the glitch to end all glitches, and perhaps even to end any memory of what a computer glitch ever was.
"It was lamented that, in the eyes of the public and policy communities, severe space weather lacks salience as a problem; it is very difficult to inspire non-specialists to prepare for a potential crisis that has never happened before, and may not happen for decades to come. Attention is inevitably drawn toward higher-frequency risks and immediate problems," says the National Academy's report.
Damn those credit default swaps! Non sequitur? Not really.
Founded by President Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War, the National Academy of Sciences serves as America's, and indeed often the world's, highest court of scientific opinion. There seems little doubt that the compelling evidence presented in the National Academy of Sciences' report would, at almost any other time, have had a real chance of heightening awareness of and funding for protective space weather research, and perhaps also mitigation programs to harden and defend the power grid, satellite system, and other vital assets vulnerable to solar predations. But between the time the workshop was held in May 2008 and the proceedings were published later that December, Wall Street fell through the floor, sucking a trillion or two tax dollars down with it. The economic crisis was so sudden and severe that the public and their legislators seemed to get "crisis overload," relegating all other matters, regardless of how urgent, to the back burner. True, the federal government's stimulus program could have shoveled some funds to space weather protection services, but it appears that the emergency monies directed toward NOAA and NASA have gone to other programs instead.
The greatest peril posed by the credit-crunch stock market crash that began in September 2008 and the subsequent Herculean investments made to defibrillate the global economy is that it fixates us on what's most urgent instead of what's most important. During crisis times, it seems that the future had damn well better take care of itself.
Deep Solar Minimum
On its face, the decision to forego funding space weather expansion in 2009 was a calculated risk. One the one hand, the Sun has been unusually active over the past few decades, with numerous aberrant events.
"Since the Space Age began in the 1950s, solar activity has been generally high. Five of the most intense solar cycles on record have occurred in the last fifty years," said solar physicist David Hathaway, a veteran Sun watcher from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
However, the period from 2008 through much of 2009 saw a sharp fall-off in solar activity. The simplest and most common way to gauge solar activity is by sunspots, which astronomers in China have counted for the past two thousand years; actual drawings of sunspots made by Galileo are kept in the Vatican archives. Sunspots are planet-sized magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun. They are the source of CMEs, such as the one that caused the Carrington event, as well as the source of most solar flares and intermittent blasts of ultraviolet radiation. By this measure, 2008 was virtually dormant; almost three-quarters of its days in 2008 had no sunspots. One had to go back to 1913 to find a less active Sun. During the first quarter of 2009, almost 90 percent of the days were sunspot-less, a historic low.
"We're just not used to this kind of deep calm. This is the quietest Sun we have seen in almost a century," adds Hathaway.
Was the Sun finally cooling its jets? Radiowave emissions had dropped to their lowest levels in half a century, perhaps indicating a weakening of Old Sol's magnetic field. This would jibe with the fact that the solar minimum of 2008-2009 also saw a record low in solar wind pressure, the lowest since measurements began to be made in the 1960s. Solar wind is composed of elementary particles such as protons and electrons; the fewer the particles, the lower the pressure. Measurements from Ulysses, a NASA solar research satellite, further indicated that the Sun's brightness, known as solar irradiance, had hit a twelve-year low; visible wavelengths had declined by 0.2 percent since the solar minimum of 1996, with ultraviolet wavelengths plummeting 6 percent.
With a calming Sun, who could blame embattled policy makers trying to fight off an economic depression for gambling that the next climax will be less of a bang than a whimper? The solar minimum of 2008-2009 was so low that on September 22, 2008, NASA held a special teleconference on the subject. A panel of experts presented and assessed the data concerning these anomalous solar conditions. Sadly, there were no climatologists on the NASA panel, and none of the members would comment on the implications of this change in solar wind for the Earth's well-being. But clearly, a reduction in the power of the coming 2012 climax would be welcome relief. So the question on everyone's mind was, is this a trend, or a blip?
"Usually after a long, low solar minimum, the following maximum is steep and intense," said Karine Issaultier, a solar physicist with l'Observatoire de Paris, Meudon, who was one of the panelists in the NASA teleconference. When I called Issaultier in France several days later, she expounded on her misgivings. "This solar minimum does not fit the classical model," said Issaultier. She explained that the 2008-2009 solar minimum, though lacking in sunspots, is otherwise surprisingly active, with immense streamers and prominences decorating much of the face of the sun. "I don't know why they are so large," she said.
The day after we spoke, the largest solar prominence in years, ten times the size of Earth, erupted magnificently.