Saturday, July 10, 2021

How Dangerous are Solar Storms?

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below.]

On May twenty-third nineteen sixty-seven, the US Air Force almost started a war. It was during the most intense part of the Cold War. On that day, the American Missile Warning System, designed to detect threats coming from the Soviet Union, suddenly stopped working. Radar stations at all sites in the Northern Hemisphere seemed to be jammed. Officials of the U.S. Air Force thought that the Soviet Union had attacked their radar and began to prepare for war. Then they realized it wasn’t the Soviets. It was a solar storm.

What are solar storms, how dangerous are they, and what can we do about them? That’s what we will talk about today.

First things first, what is a solar storm? The sun is so hot that in it, electrons are not bound to atomic nuclei, but can move around freely. Physicists call this state a “plasma”. If electric charges move around in the plasma, that builds up magnetic fields. And the magnetic fields move more electric charges around, which increases the magnetic fields and so on. That way, the sun can build up enormous magnetic fields, powered by nuclear fusion.

Sometimes these magnetic fields form arcs above the surface of the sun, often in an area of sunspots. These arcs can rip and blast off and then two things can happen: First, a lot of radiation is released suddenly, that’s visible light but also ultraviolet light and up into the X-ray range. This is called a solar flare. The radiation is usually accompanied by some fast moving particles, called solar particles. And second, in some case the flare comes with a shock wave that blasts some of the plasma into space. This is called a “coronal mass ejection,” and it can be billions of tons of hot plasma. The solar flare together with the coronal mass ejection is called a “solar storm”.

A solar storm can last from minutes to hours and can release more energy than the entire power we have spent in human history. The activity of the sun has an 11-year cycle, and the worst solar storms often come in the years after the solar maximum. We’re currently just starting a new cycle and the next maximum of solar activity will be around twenty twenty-five. The statistically most dangerous years of the solar cycle will come after that.

Well, actually. The solar cycle is really 22 years, because after 11 years the magnetic field flips, and the cycle isn’t complete until it flips back. It’s just that for what the solar activity is concerned, 11 years is the relevant cycle.

How do these solar storms affect us? Space is big and most of these solar storms don’t go into our direction. If they do, the solar flare moves at the speed of light and takes about eight minutes to reach us. The radiation exposure that comes with it is a health risk for astronauts and pilots, and it can affect satellites in orbit. For example, during a solar storm in 2003 the Japanese weather satellite Madori 2 was permanently damaged, and many other satellites automatically shut down because their navigation systems were not working. This solar storm became known as the 2003 Halloween storm because it happened in October.

Down here on earth we are mostly shielded from the flare. But not so with the coronal mass ejection. It comes after the flare with a delay of twelve hours to three days, depending on the initial velocity, and it carries its own magnetic field. When it reaches earth, that magnetic field connects with that of Earth. One effect of this is that the aurora becomes stronger, can be seen closer to the equator and can even change color to become red. During the Halloween storm, it could be seen as far south as the Mediterranean and also in Texas and Florida.

The aurora is pretty and mostly harmless, but the magnetic field causes a big problem. Because it changes so rapidly, it induces electric currents. The crust of Earth is not very conductive but our electric grids are, by design, very conductive. This means that the magnetic field from the solar storm moves around a lot of currents in the electric grid, which can damage power plants and transformers, and cause power outages.

How big can solar storms get? The strength of solar storms is measured by the energy output in the solar flare. The smallest ones are called A-class and are near background levels, followed by B, C, M and X-class. This is a logarithmic scale, so each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. There’s no more letters after X, instead one adds numbers after the X, X10, for example is another 10 fold increase after X.

What’s the biggest solar storm on record? It might have been the one from September 2nd, 1859. The solar flare on that day was observed coincidentally by the English astronomer Richard Carrington, which is why it’s known today as the “Carrington event”.

The coronal mass ejection after the flare travelled directly into direction Earth. At the time there weren’t many power grids that could have been damaged because electric lights wouldn’t become common in cities for another two decades or so. But they did have a telegraph system.

A telegrapher in Philadelphia received a severe electric shock when he was testing his equipment, and most of the devices stopped working because they couldn’t cope with the current. But some telegraphers figured out that they could continue using their device if they unplugged it, using just the current induced by the solar storm. The following exchange took place during the Carrington event between Portland and Boston:
    "Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for fifteen minutes."
    "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
    "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
    "Better than with our batteries on. – Current comes and goes gradually."
    "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the Aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."

How strong was the Carrington event? We don’t know really. At the time two measurement stations in England were keeping track of the magnetic field on earth. But those devices worked by pushing an inked pen around on paper, and during the peak of the storm, that pen just ran off the page. It’s been estimated by Karen Harvey to have had a total energy up to 10³² erg which puts it roughly into the category X45. You can read more about the Carrington event in Stuart Clark’s book “The Sun Kings”.

In twenty thirteen the insurance market Lloyd’s estimated that if a solar storm similar to the Carrington event took place today it would cause damage to the electric grid between zero point six and two point six trillion US dollars – for the United States alone. That’s about twenty times the damage of hurricane Katrina. Power outages could last from a couple of weeks to up to two years because so many transformers would have to be replaced.

The most powerful flare measured with modern methods was the 2003 Halloween Storm. Again it was so powerful that it overloaded the detectors. The sensors cut out at X 17. It was later estimated to have been X 35 +/- five, so somewhat below the Carrington event.

How bad can solar storms get? The magnetic field of our planet shields us from particles that come from the sun constantly, the so-called solar wind. It also prevents those solar particles from ripping the atmosphere off our planet. Mars, for example, once had an atmosphere, but since Mars has a weak magnetic field, its atmosphere was wiped away by solar wind. A solar storm that overwhelms the protection we have from our magnetic field could leave us exposed to the plasma raining down and could in the worst case strip apart some or all of our atmosphere. Can such strong solar storms happen?

Well, I hope you are sitting, because for all I can tell the answer is not obviously “no”. The more energy a solar storm has, the less likely it is. But occasionally astrophysicists observe stars very similar to our Sun that have a solar flare so large they might put life in the habitable zone at risk. They don’t presently know whether such an event is possible for our sun, or how likely it is.

I didn’t know that when I began working on this video. Sorry for the bad news.

What can we do about it? Satellites in orbit can be shielded to some extent. Airplanes can be redirected to lower latitudes or altitudes to limit radiation exposure of pilots and passengers. We can interrupt part of the electric grid to prevent currents from moving around too easily. But besides that, the best we can do is prepare for what’s to come, maybe stock up on toilet paper. How well these preparations work depends crucially on how far ahead we know a solar storm is headed in our direction. That’s why scientists are currently working on solar weather forecasts that might give us a warning already before the flare.

And about those mega-storms. We don’t currently have the technology to do anything about them. So I think the best we can do is to invest in science research and development so that one day we’ll able to protect ourselves.

Thanks for watching, don’t forget to subscribe, see you next week.


  1. The geology of the area where you live can also affect the severity of any solar storm.
    See here

  2. The interesting physics is magnetic field recombination. In plasma physics this is a sort of topological surgery of magnetic field lines where magnetic energy is taken up by currents of moving charges. These tightly wound magnetic field lines in the photosphere snap and the plasma in a disconnected loop of magnetic field is thrown into space. A similar much lower energy process occurs with the Earth’s magnetic field when this ionized gas interacts with the geomagnetic field. In fact, this process is now known to occur with magnetic fields on accretion disks around rotating black holes. This extracts rotational energy from the black hole, as first predicted by Penrose.

    Do not worry about flares that kills life in a habitable zone. These occur with M-class stars, called red dwarfs. These stars do not have a radiative region between the stellar core and the convection region as exists in larger K , G and larger main sequence stars. Since the convection zone interfaces the core directly this generates enormous flares, even though these stars have much lower luminosity than K on up main sequence stars. This is a reason I am skeptical of claims of possible biologically active planet around these small stars.

    If a Carrington even were to happen now, we would be in deep trouble. If you go into any store, you notice the shelves have these bar-coded strips at the edge. This is part of a large wholesale and retail industry that has logistical control of everything. The movement of all items from factory, farm or shipping container at a dock to the trucks and trains, to the shelves is all computerized and planned. A brother of mine worked as a programmer in putting all of this together. If this goes down, and digital equipment is vulnerable to current fluctuations and pulses, we could see not just prolonged power outages, but serious food distribution issues along with other items. We would be weavers caught in our own web. A Carrington event could damage or destroy computers and collapse the entire internet. That is where things are a problem.

    I recently saw a cartoon, and we cannot post them here, of AI developed, perfecting itself, and then enslaving humanity. A solar storm comes and wipes out AI and humanity later worships the sun as their deliverer.

    The military has a lot of technology and tools to work this problem. There has been engineering programs to shield against electromagnetic energy. In this case it involves electromagnetic energy and EMP generated by nuclear bursts in a war we hope never happens. So there are ways of ameliorating the potential impact of a huge solar flare or coronal mass ejection.

    1. Digital equipment won't be affected by any reasonable solar flare. The Earth's magnetic field is just too weak for that.

      The main worry is the grid stability, because of the length of the conductors.

    2. The reason you have your computer and router etc connected to power through a surge protector is to keep a current pulse from hitting the ICs and burning them out. A solar flare event could generate current pulses that damage computers. Think of the large banks of processors and servers that run the cloud and internet that could go down. A Carrington event could reduce much of them to recyclable material.

    3. I'm guessing that the cryptocurrency market especially and much of the world's financial markets would be severely impacted if not destroyed by a severe enough coronal mass ejection.

    4. If a solar storm gets rid of cryptocurrency I say good riddance to smelly garbage.

    5. From what I can gather, buying and selling crypto seems more like speculation than a sound investment opportunity. I'm not keen on it either.

    6. I agree. A pulse weapon could do it as well according to what I've read. (EMP)
      LC: pls email me

  3. Here’s an original paper on the risks that solar storms pose depending on the local geology

  4. I’ve read about plans for shielding crews in interplanetary space from solar activity.
    Shielding the entire craft with a lead solar umbrella would be too heavy.
    A lead-lined safe-room within the craft is a possibility.
    Water tanks lining the outer walls is another, but they'd be consuming their safety shield while in flight.
    Or, only flying during solar minimum.

    The Apollo astronauts were my heroes when I was growing up.
    They wore monitors on there flight-suits to record their exposure to radiation while up there.
    I don’t have data, but some of those astronauts died of cancer. I wonder if there is a correlation.

    Speaking of data, I had a boss who kept the following slogan on top of his whiteboard.
    “In God I trust. All others bring data.”

    1. A large magnetic field around a spacecraft would defect charged particle radiation.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I have understood that we will probably get at least a few hours warning of a Carrington Event like storm happening. That give utilities and others time to shut down the grid and electrically isolate vital equipment. There would be a lot of damage, but it might not be a bad as it could be. Personally, I'm thinking of turning my garage into a Faraday cage.

  7. As usual, I’m off on a tangent.
    I understand that Quantum Tunneling is a necessary ingredient for solar activity.
    I wonder if that remains true for Neutron Stars and other Supernova remnants?
    Perhaps the Singularity at the center of a Black Hole is a quantum tunnel to another universe where everything is spagettified. Maybe it will lead to a baby universe where every time something comes through it says, “hair.”

    1. There will be spaghetti for dinner for all eternity.

    2. Note sure about eternity, but definitely for all of time.

    3. Somewhere on Twitter, Sabine retweeted an image of a solar-quake. It fascinated me how the surface of the sun rippled like a lake with a rock thrown into it.

    4. The danger of solar flares or solar storms has always felt so ambiguous to me. I've occasionally heard that our sun has had solar flares in the past that have reached as far as Earth, with enough strength to destroy our magnetic field. And although the power is clearly crazy, that always felt maybe a bit exaggerated to me...?

      Also, I've always heard the fusion in stars talked about in a pretty black and white way, element-wise. Can elements heavier than iron sometimes be fused? Even though that reaction ends with less energy?

      Also, I've been trying really hard to set up a "talk-to-a-scientist" thing but haven't gotten any replies. Is it on hold at the moment?

  8. "Since Mars has a weak magnetic field, its atmosphere was wiped away by solar wind."
    Why does Venus still have a thick atmosphere?

  9. Would it be helpful to move as much of the internet as possible onto optical fiber?

  10. Did they already post the comment: "Clone war, reloaded" on YT?*

    1. No but there were comparisons to Science Asylum.

    2. I stumbled upon a great comment from two days ago in which the question of the reason for the clip's view rate, which this time was rather lower than usual, was raised.
      I suspected that this could be due to the title and the above-average number of comments relating to fashion trends. After another careful analysis, I came to the conclusion that Lordy is probably not yet able to take Sabine's fine sense of humor into account...
      & think it's actually pretty great now that the click rate is rather lower than usual. (x)

    3. I reckon everybody should know about 'Science without the Gobbledygook', but it might take some time. I've been 'hyping up' the videos a fair bit.

      There are always comments on the outfits and Dr. H's looks, it's kind of part of what the channel runs on, along with the humour and catchphrases.

      I'm also wondering if there should be a sub-playlist of Disasters with Sabine. XD

    4. Wird die nicht schon von Marvel angeboten?*

      x & ❤.

    5. I rarely watch superhero movies. I find scary scenarios as presented by Dr. Hossenfelder far more entertaining.

    6. Superheroes, particularly the Marvel line, are defining a sort of neo-polytheism. Superman, who came about in the 1930s is a sort of god, though with some pseudoscientific ideas. The Marvel characters are more often given superpowers, which is a form of supernaturalism. This does seem to point to a part of a general trend with the abandonment of monotheism, particularly Christianity, by more people and the mythic narratives of that sort assuming a new form.

      The two scariest science fiction monsters are the Giger xenomorph aliens and the recent "A Quite Place" creatures. The Alien franchise after the second film became ever more disappointing. The last one I saw was Prometheus and I had to almost force myself to watch it through. It is a real intelligence insulting piece of rot. The new movie "A Quiet Place" features a really pretty grim alien life form that gets to Earth on a meteor or small asteroid. I figure if alien life does get here it might on an asteroid or meteroid that came from some other planet long ago. A possible 3rd is the remake of "The Thing."

      Of course if we do encounter alien life it will most likely be different on a molecular level. Even if it uses DNA, there are different forms of that. It may use the Z-geometry of DNA. It could have other amino acids in polypeptides, which could include urea. There are many more possible R-groups between the amine and carboxyl ends. Then from there the organization of cells is most likely vastly different. Climbing up we have 4 forms of multicellular life, plants, animals, fungi and slime molds. Slime molds are really weird. Doubtless complex life on another planet is organized very differently. It may have no direct resemblance to complex life we know.

    7. I think we'll be finding something more akin to slime mould and fungi than ravening monsters or super-advanced humanoids.

      As for superheroes and religion, maybe if there was a greater availability of print media rather than Oak traditions and scribes there would be more grand fiction and less religion, but that could also be my biased views talking.

    8. For my part, I am very curious to see which side of the multi-dimensional omega-eder Sabine will show us today...
      & am very satisfied with the feeling
      that we all seem to understand each other such much. ^.^ ,

    9. *oak traditions = oral traditions... gah.

  11. Sometime back in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, I was leaving the building in Woods Hole, Massachusetts where I worked. It was around 10 PM, and as I crossed the narrow driveway between that building and the building housing the reception desk to sign out I noticed some light overhead. I glanced up and was astonished to see the sky lit up with multiple colors, red being the most prominent. I alerted the guards at the reception desk, then drove to Surf Drive that paralleled the ocean, with the Shining Sea Bikeway paralleling the beach. Walking down the bike path away from the street light I was overwhelmed by the incredible sight of half the sky, all the way to the zenith lit up with streamers of red and I think yellow light. I stayed there for about 15 minutes in a state of awe. The time frame would have been about one full solar cycle or 22 years, if it was 1999.

    1. That must have the same one I saw in west central Wisconsin. It is around the same timeframe. The sky directly above was all green. Do not recall much for other colors.
      I have been waiting for another like that but no luck.
      I like the NOAA Space Weather site for all the data available. It can be a little boring when the number of sun spots and activity is low. Below is the link.

    2. Peter Becher,

      I had another northern lights sighting in the wee hours of the morning, when staying over the weekend at my brother's former residence in southern New Hampshire. He sold the property in 2003, so this event would have been before that. I was sleeping on a side porch with large windows giving a good sky view. Perhaps about 1 or 2 AM I awoke because of flickering lights. I looked up and was shocked to see the totally overcast sky illuminated with a blood red color. Going out to the open porch it was a truly apocalyptic sight, and I initially wondered if a nuclear war had begun. After watching it a while I realized it was the northern lights filtering through the clouds. This was probably also in the late 90's, and perhaps the sun was more active than usual during that period.

  12. A solar storm is likely to hit Earth today, on 12 July. Solar winds travelling at a speed of 1.6 million kilometers per hour are expected to hit the Earth today and may impact GPS and high-speed internet reported The Indian Express.

    A stream of charged particles and high-speed solar winds were created when a hole opened up in the atmosphere of the sun.

    These solar flares are the explosions on the surface of the Sun which then release light, high-speed particles and energy into space. The first solar flare of this year happened on 3 July.

    It is expected that the solar winds may cause a geomagnetic storm in the magnetosphere. The storms which are caused by the efficient exchange of energy when solar winds enter the Earth’s space are called geomagnetic storms. According to a report in Outlook, this minor storm in the magnetosphere might result in auroras in north and south latitudinous regions.

    The Indian Express reports that the satellites which are in the upper layer of the atmosphere might get affected due to the geomagnetic storm. Technologies including mobile phone signal, satellite TV and GPS navigation may get affected due to the storm. It is likely that power grids might also not be operational due to the solar storm.

    Quoting the Space Weather Prediction Centre of the United States, the publication reported that high-frequency radio communication might also not be functional for one hour.

    The solar flares have been marked at X1 level by the Centre wherein X denotes the classification and the number denotes the strength of the flare. The smallest flares are from the A-class. It is followed by B, C, M and X.

  13. I don’t know what worries me more, Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) or that the U.S. military can’t tell the difference between a Solar Storm and a Soviet nuclear missile attack! At least the CME would give us 12-hours warning before it got here.

    Maybe those little bacteria friends of ours can mine Asteroid-Psyche for the nickel-iron platting needed to protect interplanetary spacecraft from solar storms.

    I once knew a pilot who flew workers, supplies, and equipment into the oil fields on the north slope of Alaska. He told me that sometimes the aurora was so intense that it would induce vertigo in the pilots. That they would have to make a concentrated effort to ignore the aurora outside and fly the airplane just by the instruments inside the cockpit.

    Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, in a video documentary, said that he was outside on a spacewalk when the ISS was orbiting through, not above or below, but through an Aurora-Borealis. That must have been something, to be part of the Aurora-Borealis out in space. I’d let go and just float there at the end of my tether. Just me and the aurora with the earth benight us.

  14. "Jim" Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics, chair of public engagement in science at the University of Surrey (UK) (phew...) has recently written an excellent sci fi novel called Sunfall which deals with this precise subject. Very erudite and pretty rip-roaring. Well worth a read

  15. There's a track by Enya called 'An Ghaoth ón Ghrian', The Solar Wind, that I've found on YouTube.

    I've not been well the last few days and that's cumulated in being admitted to hospital last night and finding out I'll possibly need a pacemaker installed, so I've looked up whether a pacemaker would be affected by a CME, of course. I'm also wondering what would happen with electrocardiogram equipment attached to me and its readings; I'm guessing I would go 'off the chart', at least. :-9

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. C Thompson,
      Don't fall for the hype if they try to sell you one with the word Quantum in it.
      If you're worried about solar storms adversely affecting it, just go for the old fashioned windup model. That'll keep the ol' ticker ticking.
      Get well soon.

    3. Thanks, Jonathan. I'm getting the b real deal. I asked my doctor whether a CME would be affected (for science) and the modern ones aren't affected, they're very stable.
      I reckon a quantum pacemaker might be a tiny quasar or something.
      I'm getting my pm inserted tomorrow, should be home the day after.

    4. *I meant, whether a pacemaker would be affected by a CME.

  16. Wow, C.
    Our pacemaker in need of a pacemaker...
    the story is getting fractalized.
    Would love to see what you can do as a replica of Toni Stark...
    & I'm quite sure that you'd put some x-tra power to good use.

    PS: Lordy told me, you're looking for a jedi-master rather than a friend...
    I think: "Oh my!". (8) °[ & whatever the outcome...
    you'll stay in our ♡. ]

    1. My power will be, 'not falling over when my heart gives out'. :)

  17. Hi Sabine,
    Have you seen the new warp drive paper that doesn't violate the weak energy condition?

    Apparently, the conditions of the theorems restricting warp drive to negative energy densities are circumvented in the above work.

  18. A report from

    Fluctuations in measured radioactive decay rates inside a modified Faraday cage: Correlations with space weather

    "For several years, reports have been published about fluctuations in measured radioactive decay time-series and in some instances linked to astrophysical as well as classical environmental influences. Anomalous behaviors of radioactive decay measurement and measurement of capacitance inside and outside a modified Faraday cage were documented by our group in previous work. In the present report, we present an in-depth analysis of our measurement with regard to possible correlations with space weather, i.e. the geomagnetic activity (GMA) and cosmic-ray activity (CRA). Our analysis revealed that the decay and capacitance time-series are statistically significantly correlated with GMA and CRA when specific conditions are met. The conditions are explained in detail and an outlook is given on how to further investigate this important finding. Our discovery is relevant for all researchers investigating radioactive decay measurements since they point out that the space weather condition during the measurement is relevant for partially explaining the observed variability."

    This type of data encourages my speculation that dark long range weak force generated photons from the Sun and other sources in outer space are producing anomalous radioactive decay processes.

  19. The way transformers get damaged is due to the geomagnetic currents magnetizing the cores of transformers. This then causes the efficiency of the transformer to go down. The transformers used at large power plants need to be extremely efficient.

    A 1 GW plant that uses 10 transformers will have to transfer 10^8 watt through each transformer, even 99.9% efficiency is then not good enough because that would mean that 10^5 watt would get dissipated inside the transformers causing them to melt.

    So, these extremely efficient transformers become less efficient due to the cores getting a permanent magnetization, which causes the cores to heat up due to dissipating power from the power plant. This temperate increase causes the efficiency to go down even more. The rapid heating will then cause the transformer to explode.

    The solution is then to shut down the power plant before the geomagnetic storm hits. The geomagnetic currents while significant, are by themselves not powerful enough to damage the transformers.


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