Welcome to this Halloween edition of The Intelligence Brief… this week, as NASA announces that a massive solar flare occurred on the Sun on Thursday, we’ll be looking at 1) the event that could light up the night sky over northern latitudes this Halloween, 2) how agencies like NASA and NOAA measure the strength of solar events, and 3) what experts have to say about whether a severe solar event in the future could cause long term problems here on Earth.
Also in video news from The Debrief, this week’s News Roundup from our very own Cristina Gomez highlights several of this week’s stories, ranging from how scientists plan to supercharge the human brain, to how 5G technology may be used by the military as a kind of surveillance radar. As always, we’ll have a complete list of all our recent stories at the end of this newsletter.
And now, it’s time we turn our attention toward the Sun, and the solar flare that has been brewing there in recent days that has researchers at NASA talking.
A Storm On the Sun
Just in time for Halloween, something spooky was captured earlier this week by NASA’s array of satellites that monitor the Sun.
At 11:35 AM Eastern Time on Thursday, a massive X1-class solar flare emitted by the Sun reached its peak, prompting NASA and other agencies to warn of possible communications systems interference that may occur in the days ahead.
Fortunately, apart from the possibility of some electronic disturbance, little else can be expected from Thursday’s solar event.
“Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground,” wrote Lina Tran this week at NASA’s Solar Cycle 25 blog, though noting that such flares “can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.”
Images of the solar event were captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has continuously monitored the Sun now since the mission was launched in February 2010.
“NASA observes the Sun and our space environment constantly with a fleet of spacecraft that study everything from the Sun’s activity to the solar atmosphere, and to the particles and magnetic fields in the space surrounding Earth,” Tran wrote.
As part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, the Solar Dynamics Observatory observes solar phenomena in an effort to help scientists understand the dynamics of the Earth-Sun system.
Measuring the Strength of Solar Flare Events
Among the most intense variety of flares produced by the Sun, this week’s solar event still ranked in the weakest level of X-class flares, which are numbered according to their strength. X10 or higher represents an “unusually intense” flare, according to NASA.
In the image below, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, the bright flare can be seen emanating from just below the center of the Sun:
According to NASA, the satellite imagery conveys “ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares,” which appear in teal in the photo above.
Along with NASA, solar activity is monitored by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which serves as the official source for space weather forecasts, watches, warnings, and alerts for the U.S. government.
“In response to today’s coronal mass ejection (CME) from Region 2887 associated with the X1 flare… A G2 (Moderate) watch is in effect for 31 October,” read a NOAA statement.
Possible effects associated with a G3 category event include irregularities or other interference with power systems, radio and navigation equipment, and even spacecraft in orbit.
Although the current X1 flare is not expected to cause significant problems, concerns have been raised for many years about Earth’s increasingly sensitive power systems and how they might be affected by a more severe solar storm. This raises the question as to how bad could things actually end up getting, in the event that a truly massive solar event were ever to occur?
The Coming Future Dark Age
In his 2009 novel One Second After, a high altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack launched against the United States takes the entire power grid offline countrywide. The novel tells the story from the perspective of protagonist John Matherson, whose small hometown of Black Mountain, North Carolina, struggles to exist in a world without electricity… and a whole lot of problems.
While the novel’s plotline involves an actual attack behind the blackout, Forstchen and others have expressed real-life concerns about what kinds of impact an EMP event might have on our electrical grid. Much like the effects of a nuclear weapon-based EMP described in Forstchen’s book, some also worry that large-scale space weather events could have a similar effect.
Between September 1-2 1859, a solar event known today as the Carrington Event resulted in significant damage to telegraph systems, and many experts warn that a similar event today could lead to widespread disruptions or even complete electrical grid shutdowns. In fact, a solar storm of equal magnitude to the 1859 Carrington Event already occurred in 2012, although it turned out to be a near miss: the resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) passed Earth and never actually collided with our planet. Will Earth prove to be so lucky next time?
“As for the Carrington Event, new research shows that these major events are more common than previously thought,” Phillips told The Debrief, who explained that in addition to the near miss that occurred in 2012, space weather experts like him now believe that large-scale solar storms have been a more common occurrence throughout history.
Phillips added that “power grid operators have been taking space weather seriously for some time now, and many regional grids are well prepared to survive a major storm.”
So in the event of future severe solar storms, maybe the forecast doesn’t look quite so dire as some have warned. And on the brighter side of things, skywatchers at northern latitudes may even be treated to colorful auroral displays over the weekend, which would surely lend an eerie glow to any outdoor Halloween activities you may have in the works.