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Dangers posed by space storms

Monday, December 15, 2014
Science and Society

Climate change, as evidenced by severe weather events and global warming, is very much topical, as nations and individuals count their financial and property losses. The predictions for the future seem to be even grimmer. 

Thus there are strong exhortations, from some quarters, to take the necessary steps now, to mitigate future destruction and losses. Catastrophic as these earthly storms may be, it would appear that we also do face the possibility of periodic and one-off cataclysmic disturbances from space storms.

Just as there is earth weather, there is space weather—a term used to describe the effects of the interactions of solar charged particles with the earth’s magnetic field. The sun which is the dominant planet in the solar system, experiences fluctuations in its magnetic field. (There is an 11-year solar activity cycle.)

This results in periodic solar eruptions. Solar flares and CMEs (Corona Mass Ejections) are two types of such emanations and they generate radiation and charged particles in space which have the potential to cause geomagnetic storms. 

These storms can disrupt the operations of satellites, communications and power grids as they induce currents in electric and electronic networks. Thus they have the potential to cause large-scale power outages and damage to electrical/electronic equipment. 

The lesson learnt from past blackouts is that looting and social chaos are real and distinct outcomes. Another very human-based outcome can arise from doomsayers and their ilk who are quick to predict the end of the world, especially when space events occur. 

During the period August 28 to September 2, 1859, there was a massive geomagnetic storm. It was a worldwide event with spectacular light displays (Aurora Borealis) that had folks trembling and praying, thinking that the world was coming to an end. 
There is a recent solar-storm hoax that has gone viral. It alleges that from December 16 to 22, the world is going to go dark. Of course NASA has dispelled this rumour.

In September 2012, it was reported that a huge solar storm just missed us, one that could have disastrous consequences if it had affected earth. So the potential dangers, disruption of technological infrastructures and consequent impact on society and the further social chaos from charlatans and anarchists, are real enough.    

In recognition of this, the UK Met Office recently opened a new forecast centre dedicated to space weather. Both the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of the UK, in 2011, paved the way for the launch of this co-ordinated effort to monitor space weather.

The negative impact on the economies of the US and UK from space weather has emerged as a real risk. The UK Risk Register lists the top three risks as the flu, Icelandic volcanic eruptions and solar storms. It has been estimated, by reliable sources, that damage from a large solar event may be in the range of US$0.6 to 2.6 trillion.

In addition to the aforementioned issues, solar weather may also have an impact on earthly storms. Researchers from Mexico investigated the possible effects of solar storms on hurricanes. They had motivation to so do, as their country is situated in the hurricane zone and faces their wrath yearly. They looked at the number of hurricanes, categories, intensification, maximum rotational velocity and total energy. 

Their general conclusions were that space weather presented an associated relation which depended on the ocean basin and the phase of the solar activity cycle. In terms of the risk assessment and mitigation, it would be prudent for T&T and indeed the Caribbean countries to start looking at the internal and externally-driven impacts on our economies from such events.


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