The enormity of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) is staggering, with billions of super-hot materials catapulting from the Sun at breakneck speeds. But how do we measure the colossal scale of these solar behemoths, and what implications do their gargantuan sizes hold for Earth?
How Big Are Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs)? CMEs can be enormous — by the time they approach Earth, some CMEs encompass nearly a quarter of the space between our planet and the Sun. These solar phenomena play a significant role in space weather and impact Earth’s technological systems.
This article delves into the threats posed by CMEs, examining how experts are spearheading space-based research on the Sun’s energy to devise strategies for safeguarding power stations and communication networks.
The Reality Surrounding the Dynamics of CMEs
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The Sun is Earth’s source of light and energy, a massive ball of fire whose distance from our planet safeguards us from being incinerated. However, this fiery orb occasionally releases pent-up energy as fiery storms or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).
Space scientists have been observing these flare-ups for years, and the accumulated data has aided in predicting solar eruptions. Consistent studies have enhanced mankind’s understanding of the Sun’s workings.
CMEs, of course, existed for billions of years before space science and studies. Their occurrences have affected life on Earth.
NOAA’s Space Weather Scales for Geomagnetic Storms explanation is from levels G1 through G5. Even on the CME’s geomagnetic storms lowest G1 scale level, migratory animals are affected, let alone a G5 storm. Humans, in general, are not aware of these incredible effects.
Because of the planet’s natural protective mechanisms against the Sun’s energetic outpourings. The Earth’s magnetic field stands as one of its major defenses.
The Sun and associated phenomena like CMEs are potentially dangerous natural occurrences.
Although extensive damage hasn’t been witnessed yet, aside from the effects of major blackouts, transformer and satellite damage, and sunspots on wheat production. There are tell-tale signs that CMEs are scientific reality and may affect the planet in a major way some day..
For instance, the auroras often visible at the northern and southern poles, which sky watchers adore, result from solar radiation heating the upper atmosphere and charging it with electricity. These occurrences also show that Earth’s upper atmosphere is already warm.
Some Notable Events Attributed to Solar Storms and CMEs
Currently, Earth is already grappling with the effects of super-heated plasma, which sends currents into the atmosphere, some of which are detectable on the ground!
According to EarthSky, some notable events attributed to CMEs include:
- 1967 Solar Storm Nearly Took Us To Brink Of War: “On May 23, 1967, the U.S. Air Force prepared aircraft for war, thinking the nation’s surveillance radars in polar regions were being jammed by the Soviet Union. It was the military’s correct diagnosis of the solar storm that prevented the event from becoming a nuclear disaster.”
- Québec Power Failure (1989): On March 13, 1989, Québec suffered a significant power outage due to a CME event, leaving over six million people without power for nearly nine hours.
- Carrington Event (1989): This notable solar storm, recorded by Richard Carrington, saw CMEs reaching Earth in under seventeen hours, vastly quicker than the previously estimated four days.
- New Zealand Power Failure (2001): Scientists linked a massive power failure in 2001 in New Zealand to solar flares and subsequent CMEs, illustrating their potential to damage power grids even in lower altitude areas.
- Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid (2013):This report discusses the likelihood of extreme geomagnetic storms, and the specific vulnerabilities of the North American power grid, and the areas that are at the highest risk.
Radiation Threats to Astronauts and High-Altitude Flights
The Earth’s atmosphere serves as the cornerstone of the aviation industry while also acting as a protective shield against radiation.
Space science has identified extraterrestrial sources of electromagnetic and particulate radiation, charged with high energy, that bypass the Earth’s magnetosphere and collide with the upper atmosphere. The interaction between these particulate radiations and matter generates a secondary radiation field.
The aerospace industry has established altitude levels for navigating outer space while remaining shielded from intense radiation fields. However, Solar Storms and CMEs persist in posing threats to the safety of space operations.
Since 1990, cosmic radiation has been recognized as an occupational hazard, mandating all exposed aircrew to undergo recommended treatment. These regulations also guide the scheduling of aircrew for work.
Pregnant aircrew members are advised to refrain from duty for the remainder of their pregnancies to prevent any adverse effects on the fetus.
Technological Malfunctions and CMEs
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CMEs trigger surges in electrical currents, leading to power grid overloads and subsequent power outages. NASA has also reported that CMEs can interfere with Earth’s magnetic field, which is crucial for radio transmissions, causing noticeable radio static.
Human movement heavily relies on GPS technology, yet it now emerges that GPS systems are among the most vulnerable to the effects of CMEs compared to other technologies. A CME event can disturb GPS coordinates, causing users to deviate by several feet.
CMEs impact these technologies by disrupting radio signals that facilitate communication between satellites and ground receivers. The radio signal travels through the atmosphere and reaches all the way to the ionosphere. However, the path of the radio signals bends when the ionosphere is charged, much in the same way that a mirror bends light.
Under normal circumstances, GPS systems have mechanisms to compensate for these occurrences, ensuring accurate location tracking for users. Unfortunately, CME events challenge any model of GPS, making it impossible for them to account for these disruptions, leading to a failure in accurately calculating positions.
How Do We Prepare and Protect Ourselves From a Solar Storm?
Extensive research into space weather has paved the way for the design of solutions. Rob Manning, serving as the vice president for transmission at the Electric Power Research Institute, affirms that various groups are already spearheading solutions.
For instance, an organization is constructing a capacitor bank designed to absorb and dissipate the energy unleashed by CMEs. Similarly, other organizations are fabricating devices intended to dampen electricity, which will be stationed as faraday cages around crucial technological equipment.
The United States Department of Energy is also contributing to the search for solutions, currently crafting flywheels that can siphon off excess energy from a power grid.
Admittedly, some of these solutions bear unintended consequences, which are likened to the side effects of medicines that, while treating diseases, also trigger adverse reactions.
Space Scientists Predicting Space Weather and Early Warning’s?
Space scientists contend that predicting a CME event in advance is the most suitable solution. The various observations and data amassed over the years can be employed to ascertain the timing and velocity of solar storms and solar flares.
This data can be harnessed to craft warning systems that will trigger alarms whenever a solar storm is imminent. Such a warning will provide a window for a safe shutdown, reducing or eliminating the risk of overload and a subsequent power outage.
Unfortunately, the public is usually not aware of these situations until after the fact as it is not considered and issue by most of society.
Solar storms and CMEs present a global threat. The most effective preventative measures are those offering global or national solutions.
However, individuals can also adopt certain measures to stay safe during a solar storm. Measures such as preparing and creating emergency preparedness kits in case of long-term power outages.
You can also purchase and create alternative power supplies, maintain an adequate supply of drinking water for your family, and pay attention to geomagnetic storm warnings.
- ARPA-E: Next-Generation Flywheel Energy Storage
- EarthSky: Are Solar Storms Dangerous to Us?
- Forbes: Why Solar Storms Could Be the Biggest Risks to Technology
- MDPI: Radiation in the Atmosphere—A Hazard to Aviation Safety?
- NBC News: How We’ll Safeguard Earth From a Solar Storm Catastrophe
- Space: Coronal Mass Ejections: What Are They and How Do They Form?