Scientists are sounding the alarm that space storms could hit the earth at any moment, giving us a short amount of time to prepare. Should we actually get hit with one of these devastating storms, we will have only 15 minutes of warning.
Low-level space storms hit the Earth around 80 days a year, and there are generally around four severe events every year. Space storms are largely unpredictable, and in the case of the most severe storms and solar flares caused by activity on the Sun, these powerful torrents can cause potential devastation on Earth.
Space weather is caused by the behavior of the Sun and can occur in the form of radiation storms, solar flares, and the one to worry about: coronal mass ejections. CMEs send scores of solar material into space and sometimes hurtling towards Earth. These particles modify the Earth’s atmosphere and its magnetic field, in turn, affecting our technology, satellites, and disrupting our power supply, potentially leaving large areas of the world paralyzed.
Forecasters are only able to predict large space storms presently, which can cause huge power outages and disrupt our communications systems, just 19 hours ahead. Catherine Burnett is the manager of the Met Office’s space weather program in London which is working hard to give us an advanced warning about events caused by space weather. “Coronal mass ejections can travel in any direction from the Sun. If they heading our way their size means they would completely engulf the Earth,” said Burnett.
“It takes a significant coronal mass ejection 19 hours to travel to the Earth. But once we have seen a coronal mass ejection leave the Sun we still will not know until 15 minutes before it reaches Earth what its magnetic orientation is and if we will see any impact,” she added.
The interaction with the Earth’s electromagnetic field will determine whether an electric current is induced in Earth will interfere with our power services here, potentially causing such a large influx of energy that could flow into high voltage power grids, tripping safety systems and in the most severe cases permanently damaging transformers. This could have devastating impacts on power supplies for hospitals, businesses and transport. –The Mirror UK
“If a coronal mass ejection impacts the Earth’s magnetic field and it’s the right orientation then all the energy gets transferred down the magnetic field lines and heads to the Earth’s surface,” said Burnett. “A current is induced in the Earth’s crust which finds it difficult to travel through rock so would rather go through a long metal conductor like a high voltage power grid. It will then go up through a transformer and trip the safety systems in electricity substations, or if it’s really powerful it can damage the transformer. And you could lose power.”
“We only need one active region that’s particularly strong to give a severe space weather event, and this could happen at any time,” Burnett continued. “We study sunspots on a day to day basis, and if one is looking particularly active then this increases the chance of a solar flare. These travel at the speed of light so by the time we’ve detected them we’re seeing the impacts.”
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