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article imageSymposium warns we could have another 'Carrington event'

By Karen Graham     Apr 7, 2016 in Science
We have talked about solar flares before, and generally, we think of them as creating beautiful auroras seen close to the Earth's poles. But what if one of these flares was a "super flare?" What could it do to the Earth?
Weather makes up a good portion of the news today, and it's hard not to get caught up in the devastation caused by droughts, flooding, wildfires, and El Nino. But there is one weather event that we should be concerned about.
At a symposium held in Washington D.C. last week, attended by space weather specialists from academia, the federal government, the military and private industry, the focus was on the growing urgency for both basic scientific research and the development of practical applications in the field of space weather.
A large solar flare captured by NASA on March 6th  2012.
A large solar flare captured by NASA on March 6th, 2012.
NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center
"Once systems start to fail, (the outages) could cascade in ways we can't even conceive," said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. Baker was a panelist at the meeting and recommended support for the development of engineering systems and devices capable of protecting Earth's infrastructure in the event of an extreme solar flare event.
An extreme solar flare event
Along with solar flares, there are also Coronal Mass Ejection events (CME) and a CME could do more damage than all the known weather events we have ever experienced. To make matters worse, says Tech Insider, we have done very little to prepare for such an event, even though we have no way to stop it.
In 1859, Digital Journal reported in October 2015, a CME hit Earth's magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. At that time, telegraph lines were exploding because of being electrified by the geomagnetic activity created by the flare. The event was named for the astronomer.
156 Years Ago  on September 2nd  1859  A Geomagnetic Mega-Storm  The Carrington Event  Struck Earth ...
156 Years Ago, on September 2nd, 1859, A Geomagnetic Mega-Storm, The Carrington Event, Struck Earth's Magnetic Field.
NCIFiRestArter's Psy-Ambient Grove
Again, in 1989, a relatively minor CME shut down power for over six million people in Canada. On July 23, 2012, a similar-sized flare tore out of the Sun's corona and luckily, flew out into space, missing the Earth by about nine days. And more recently, on September 28, 2015, an intense solar flare disrupted low-frequency radio wave communications over South America and the Atlantic Ocean.
The "what if?" of a solar flare
The solar flare that missed the Earth in 2012 was actually very big news, but most newspapers didn't bother reporting the "near miss." If the extreme solar storm had hit earth, "we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, in a NASA press release in 2014.
Extreme solar storms would decimate all forms of high-technology. They start with an explosion, or "solar flare" in the magnetic canopy of a sunspot. X-rays and extreme UV radiation reach Earth at the speed of light, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere. This is the electromagnetic pulse or EMP.
Solar flares are giant bursts of x-rays and energy. Flares take only eight minutes to reach the Eart...
Solar flares are giant bursts of x-rays and energy. Flares take only eight minutes to reach the Earth.
The "solar EMP" can cause radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors. Minutes to hours later, energetic particles arrive. Moving only slightly slower than light itself, electrons and protons accelerated by the blast can electrify satellites and damage their electronics. Then come the CMEs, billion-ton clouds of magnetized plasma that can take a day or more to reach Earth.
Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket, says the NASA press release. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.
The worst case scenario is something no one wants to think about, but a "superflare" could easily shut down all our communications, wipe out computer hard drives, ground aircraft and quite literally bring civilization to its knees, reports Tech Radar. How much would such an event cost? If we were just looking at the United States based on 2013 prices, it would be in excess of $2.6 trillion. Today, it would be even more.
CMEs are giant clouds of particles hurled out into space.
CMEs are giant clouds of particles hurled out into space.
Do we have a contingency plan in place?
The most dangerous aspect of solar storms is their ability to impact us on a global scale. This makes this natural phenomenon unique above all others. This is the reason why international cooperation will be needed in developing a worldwide plan that all players will agree to in order to facilitate aid on a global scale.
The U.S. started working on a contingency plan based on the Carrington event in October 2015. The plan involves agencies at the federal and state level and includes emergency managers, academia, the media, the insurance industry, nonprofit organizations and the private sector.
Based on the worst-case scenario, the plan's varied activities will: improve space weather prediction abilities, complete an all-hazards power outage response and recovery plan, assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to EMP, develop a real time-time infrastructure to report damage, help industry develop long-term reduction of EMP vulnerability and promote international collaboration to plan for a potentially global catastrophe.
What can we as individuals do to prepare for the worst-case scenario? The Department of Homeland Security advises us to prepare for "extreme space weather" by first understanding what space weather is all about. To keep abreast of any predictions and information regarding CMEs and solar flare activity, there are two websites you can access: NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) and the U.S. Air Force's (USAF) Weather Agency (AFWA)
Prepare an emergency kit and family communication plan. Basically, this is the same kind of emergency kit you would have ready in case of other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, blizzards and the like. Always have a contingency plan ready so that the family knows where to meet in case of any kind of emergency. To find out more about an emergency kit, you can go to the government's "Ready" Space weather website.
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