Sun explosions and auroras right here

(NASA/SDO/AIA)

(NASA/SDO/AIA)

Last week’s huge X-class solar flare did not give us auroras – because we never had a chance. Thursday night turned cloudy early, and the solar material wasn’t scheduled to reach us until the wee hours, after rain had started. But much more can happen when such giant Coronal Mass Ejections from the Sun reach our planet.

My recent book, The Sun’s Heartbeat, has a chapter crammed with dramatic examples. Let me share a few with you. (Yes, it’s shameless plug, but I can’t help it.)

First, we’ve not seen anything as powerful as the Sun explosions of 1859 and 1921, which knocked people unconscious and caused raging fires. When we get that kind of storm again – next month or in 50 years, nobody knows – it could knock out our electrical infrastructure to the tune of one to two trillion dollars’ worth of damage, according to a special workshop of solar experts held in 2008.

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Even the relatively minor storms of the past 30 years created lots of trouble. On March 13, 1989, a quarter of Canada’s population suffered a paralyzing blackout from a solar storm. Meanwhile, highway engineers had their ultra-precise GPS units go crazy, resulting in a road paved in the wrong place, whose concrete later had to be ripped up. The Galaxy 15 satellite, an engineering wonder sending high-definition TV signals for cable providers, suddenly lost all commands from its controllers on the ground. Every other aspect of the orbiting machine was still operating, but its utter deafness to humans meant that it would soon drift useless: a total loss.

This explosion was first observed on March 11 in the middle of the Sun’s disc, facing us, so that the squirming swarm of disemboweled protons and electrons was aimed precisely in our direction. High-energy electromagnetic radiation was also unleashed – this at light-speed, so that it whooshed to our world in only 8 ½ minutes and instantly disrupted radio broadcasts. The Berlin Wall was destined to fall later that very year, but for now the Cold War was still very much alive and the CIA assumed that this sudden jamming of Radio Free Europe into Russia was the work of Soviet electronics specialists. Instead, and recognized by no one, it was the first sign that we were under attack from the nearest star.

Two days later, on Sunday night, the enormous swarm of solar particles struck our planet’s magnetic field at a thousand miles a second. The cloud of charged particles had its own magnetism, and by a 50/50 chance its polarity was aligned opposed to our own: the only configuration that would allow it to transfer its energy to us, rather than being guided harmlessly around our world by our protective magnetosphere.

The solar detritus, channeled along our field lines, swarmed into our atmosphere near the poles. Instantly it created enormous electrical currents in the high thin air, which gave birth to the most spectacular displays of the Northern Lights seen in many years. You didn’t need to be in Alaska. They flickered brilliantly over our skies here in upstate New York from horizon to horizon. They were vivid even in the skies over Florida and the Caribbean.

While compasses went crazy, electrical currents began surging along the Earth beneath the displays. Garage doors throughout the continent started going up and down, and continued all night long. The ground itself sizzled; areas with high concentrations of igneous rock, like most of Canada’s eastern half, experienced geomagnetically induced currents in all power transmission lines.

At 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the Sun-induced surges started creating havoc in Quebec’s electrical power grid. The 100-ton capacitor Number 12 at the Chibougamau substation tripped and went offline. Two seconds later a second capacitor blew, and then 100 miles away at the Albanel and Nemiskau stations four more capacitors went offline. When yet another went offline, and five transmission lines from James Bay tripped, the entire 9,460-megawatt output from Hydro-Quebec’s La Grande Hydroelectric Complex was cut off. Within a minute the Quebec power grid had collapsed. The province of Quebec was blacked out. Three million people were in darkness. The workweek began with the Montreal Metro silent and useless. The city’s main airport, Dorval, stripped of its radars, also closed.

In all cases, the underlying cause is the Sun’s complex magnetic field, which contains regions that can disconnect with a snap, unleashing the power of thousands of H-bombs and hurl billions of tons of broken atom fragments into space. But we won’t know the all-important magnetic polarity of the cloud of debris until it is physically sampled by the SOHO satellite a million miles sunward of us, and by then we have only a couple of hours’ warning.

In 2003, a solar event now called “the Halloween storm” increased radiation enough to make airlines expensively redirect all their polar routes, and caused the loss of a $640 million spacecraft. It knocked out the power to parts of Sweden as well.

So yes, Sun storms can definitely affect us to create damage – which is the bad news – or gorgeous aurorae over our region. That’s the bright side of the Sun’s spasmodic violence.

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