Luiza Becari is a freelance writer and humanitarian residing in Brazil.
In 1989, a large Sun Storm caused a massive blackout in the province of
Quebec, Canada. It almost did the same on the East Coast of the United
States. Most people have never heard of a Sun Storm, or
Storm. In fact, sun storms would remain largely unknown if their effects
on our planet were not so devastating.
Sun Storms are caused by changes in the space weather, which also cause ionospheric storms, bombardments of the Earth by charged particles and
dramatic increases in dangerous radiation such as X-rays, gamma rays and
more. Since the power outages of 1989, virtually every power plant,
computer company and other service that is vulnerable to radiation
interference, has been trying to find a way to avoid sun storm damage.
Their success or failure could mean the safeguarding of millions-- or
billions-- of dollars in damaged equipment and lost revenues.
According to Richard Thompson,
at the IPS Radio and Space Services in
Australia, these sun storms cause such extensive damage because of "the
surges of electric current they induce in long conductors, such as power
lines and pipelines".
A geomagnetic storm is the result of constant explosions on the searing
surface of the Sun. These explosions throw off an incredible amount of
highly energetic particles, which stream into space at velocities of
thousands of miles an hour. When these particles happen to hit our
atmosphere, the consequences may be drastic.
Unseen to the naked eye, these highly charged particles can cause any
number of harmful consequences:
When hitting our atmosphere, charged particles can imperil astronauts,
push satellites out of their orbits or simply destroy their circuitry.
If they hit the ground, they can confuse compasses, knock out power
systems, cause massive blackouts.
Charged particles can interrupt HF radio transmissions and interfere
with navigation systems and the GPS (Global Positioning System), used by
many commercial airlines, which may report false locations by up to tens
Cycles of Nature
The Sun has periodic cycles of heightened activity. This is known as the
"eleven year cycle." The 1989 storm happened during the last "solar
maximum" (the strongest part of the eleven year cycle) and its effects
were felt all over the world. The next peak is scheduled for the years
2000/2002 and it is expected to cause even more damages than the 1989
Being prepared is the best way to avoid the effects of a Sun storm. The
Space Program, for example, has to schedule its activities in a way to
protect astronauts and safeguard spacecraft. Power companies, predicting
a sun storm allows them to prepare their grids to stand the great
interference caused by ionized particles coming from the Sun and to
anticipate interruptions or even a total energy blackouts.
Scientist have been working hard to find a predict and detect solar
storms as soon as they start on their way to Earth. Unfortunately,
forecasting these storms is not as simple as predicting the weather here
on Earth. Forecasts for most Geomagnetic storm can only be made in very
short advance. There is usually only "2 to 4 days warning, as the
material moves outward from the Sun," says Richard Thompson. Although
the possibility of a storm coming may be seen days in advance, the most
reliable and precise forecasts can be given only about one hour before
the storm hits. These immediate forecasts can be derived thanks to the
solar wind information scientists only recently started receiving from
the ACE spacecraft. The latest monitoring spacecraft is positioned
between the Earth and the Sun (but much closer to Earth). Unfortunately,
such a short notice does not give much time for concerned parties to get
Because sun storm detection is so vital, scientists keep their eyes on
the skies day and night, monitoring the Sun 24 hours a day, seven days a
week. Some scientists have recently proposed a mathematical model that
involves the rate of planetary axial revolution and the corresponding
rates of revolution of solar currents at various latitudes. There is
some suggestion that this theory can predict past solar storms, as well
as future solar activity. Until this theory is confirmed and accepted by
the scientific community, constant vigilance is the only reliable system
for warning of these dangerous storms.
Just In Time?
The Cassini probe (see
Cassini: A Poisonous Package in Viewzone
archives) is scheduled to return to Earth's atmosphere on August, 16,
1999. This date coincides with the beginning of the next Solar Maximum.
The probability of Sun storms will be the greatest since the last peak
in 1989, when the blackout in Quebec occurred. What does this mean?
Besides the expected risks NASA took in launching its probe, filled with
about 72 pounds of radioactive fuel, there is also the possibility of
the probe suffering interference from geomagnetic storms and other
effects derived from solar flares. A very unique alignment of the
planets, called The Grand Cross, will also coincide with
return. Opinions on whether and how an accident with the probe and its
poisonous contents would affect our planet diverge radically. But even
those who dismiss any possibility of contamination admit there's a
chance Cassini will break up if its "sling-shot" rendezvous is altered.
The extent and gravity of the damages will only be completely understood
when and if the accident happens. Unfortunately, it may be too late.