NASA: Revisiting Our Vulnerabiity To Solar Flares
Last year, we recorded a fascinating interview with Dr. Lika Guhathakurta, NASA astrophysicist and heliophysics expert, to understand the science behind coronal mass ejections (CMEs — also commonly referred to as 'solar flares) and the potential havoc a large one could wreak on our technology-dependent society. The largest CME recorded in modern history, the Carrington Event, occurred in 1859 and it's charged particle wave brought down the then-new telegraph system across the US.
Dr Guhathakurta returns to the podcast this week to discuss a large-scale CME that nearly hit Earth back in July of 2012 (a direct hit missed us by about 1 week), as well as to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the warning system we have in place to alert us to such dangers, and the continuing vulnerability our system have to such an event:
To bring our modern society to a halt, I don't think we need an event that is as large as a Carrington Event. It could be much smaller, simply because of the connectedness of our power grid and also the entire technological system. We don't know how to operate without our GPS system.
What's interesting is that we used to think that this kind of low-probability, high-impact event happens every 100 years or so. Some researchers are doing calculations that suggest that the probability could be much higher: 10-12%. Now, that probability that they are referring to is that a solar storm will be that severe. But as to its impact — we still know very little about that.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Lika Guhathakurta (35m:02s):
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NASA: Revisiting Our Vulnerabiity To Solar Flares
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Chris: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. You know, in the past, we have talked about the phenomenon of coronal mass ejections from the sun. Now, usually abbreviated CME, these blasts of particles from the sun can cause anything from a very mild aurora seen in the far north to major disruptions in communications and possibly even damage to the electrical grid itself, as was seen in 1989 in Quebec and elsewhere in the northeast of North America. The reason I want to revisit the subject today is because of an event in 2012 that was a close call for the planet Earth. Well, at least that part of planet Earth that relies on electricity and computers and things like that.
Today, we are rejoined by Lika Guhathamurta, NASA astrophysicist and program scientist for the STEREO Mission and lead scientist on NASA’s Living With a Star initiative. Dr. Guhathamurta works as a scientist, mission designer, instrument builder, teacher and spokesperson for NASA’s Heliophysics Division. So, I have asked Lika to come on the program to discuss that 2012 event, help us put it into some context. Lika, I really appreciate you rejoining us today.
Lika: I appreciate the opportunity. I think this was a significant event that I am glad to spend some time on it.
Chris: Great. So, for those listeners who may not have heard the prior podcast, how about a quick background on what a CME is?
Lika: So, CMEs are this massive amount of energized, magnetized particles that are essentially belched out by the sun from time to time. Often, they arise from regions that we see with our unaided eyes as sunspots if they are large enough. These are dark regions where the magnetic field is really strong. These are also called "active regions," and so CMEs will often emanate from such regions, but not necessarily always. And, so these structures can be huge, huge, much bigger than our planet, other bigger planets. And, they carry matter that is of the order of one to ten billion tons, if you can really comprehend that amount of matter and energy that something like this would carry.
If you are looking at it through our telescopes as we do, they would appear to you as being sort of innocuous in that they are very tenuous. They are almost gossamer-like, yet it carries so much energy, magnetized energy, that when it comes and impacts our planetary environment for planet Earth, hits our magnetosphere that is the force shield, it can cause all sorts of interesting effects.
Chris: So, this is a blast of matter, maybe like water being flung off the end of a towel. These are particles, right, this is actual physical matter, ten billion tons you mentioned as a possible amount, seems like a lot. And, it is flying towards the earth, and of course, I can imagine that they vary a lot in intensity. How are these classified? How do we put them in a scale?
Lika: It is not that we put the CMEs on the scale as such. But, we do put their impacts on scales. So, for example, NOAA will classify the impact and the severity of a phenomenon like a coronal mass ejection or a solar flare, which is a really intense disruption of a magnetic region on the sun, very localized, unlike a coronal mass ejection, which is very broad in scope, but with a tremendous amount of energy. I do want to point out that while you mentioned that this is actually matter, yes, in a sense it is matter, but it is the full state of matter. It is plasma, so all the material that we experience and that is thrown out is actually ionized. So, these are electrons, protons or ionized atoms. These are not the kind of neutral atmosphere that we live in. So, these are magnetized material.
Magnetic field plays a very, very important role. In fact, that is what makes this distinction between space weather and terrestrial weather, even though we use the name "weather," they are physically very different phenomenon and the magnetic field plays a crucial role in that distinction.
Chris: So, we have got this plasma flying towards us. It is protons, it is neutrons…
Chris: …electrons, just stripped atoms coming at us, having lost one or more electrons. And, so it is all charged up, ready to go. So, let’s talk about that 2012 event. I believe it happened in July of 2012. How big was it? Let’s talk about that.
Lika: Before I talk about how big that particular event was, it is probably instructive to kind of understand what do we mean by "big," because big or extreme event has different meaning to different people. It is almost like in the eyes of the beholder. So, we kind of characterize everything today–this extreme event that we observed in 1859 called the Carrington Event, which has actually become a touchstone of heliophysics and space weather. So, if we compare it to Carrington Event, which is the worst, we believe, we have observed, even though it was a long time ago and we did not have the modern technology as we do today. How does it compare to that scale? That is kind of one question we want to ask when we are trying to define the word "big."
But, there are many other ways of defining big, okay. We have had the biggest geomagnetic storm that occurred in March of 1989, that you just described, when we had the Hydro Quebec failure. We have had the biggest solar particle event, occurred in September of 1859, that is the Carrington storm. We have had low latitude auroras observed in February, 1872. These are some of the extremes I am describing. The fastest CME on record, you know, up until now, crossed the Sun-Earth divide in only 14 hours. And, this was in August of 1972. The most intense, sudden atmospheric disturbance that happened with flares, occurred during the Halloween storms of 2003. So, these are kind of many different ways of describing how an event was significant and big. And, each one of these would have different impacts.
On that scale, this particular CME was one of the fastest that we have observed in space age. It comes pretty close to the 1972 CME, except slightly slower perhaps. So, it was traveling at a speed of the order of say 2500 plus/minus 500 kilometers per second. It took roughly 19 hours for this CME to plow through the interplanetary medium and strike our magnetosphere. It carried with it a magnet field that is pretty important. The more magnetic field the CME is carrying, determines really the severity of the geomagnetic storm that it will cause. And, that was significantly high.
We have done lots of modeling on this particular event and what we find—there is a planetor [PH] called DST, that is a sheerly… so the term is "disturbance storm time." This is a number that we calculate from ground-based magnetometers around the equator, and what this does is it actually measures how hard earth’s magnetic field shakes when a CME hits. So, we kind of had calculated, extrapolated that number for Carrington Event, and we knew that number for the 1989 storm. If we do the same kind of calculation—remember, this is extrapolation, because this CME did not hit earth—then what we find that the DST would have been sort of a factor or two higher than the one we experienced in 1989. And, that is pretty significant.
Chris: A factor of two, that is very significant.
Lika: Now, remember, these are all models now. We are using data and we are doing simulations and they are coming up with these results, and this is what the scientists are doing.
Chris: Sure, sure. You will not really know until it happens in the real world, but we have the data. We collected some data on how fast this was traveling and the magnetic charge it was carrying with us. You mentioned it came close. How close did it come?
Lika: Are you talking in terms of…
Lika: …distance to—no, no, no it did not. So, you know, STEREO-A was actually on the west limb of the sun and beyond. So, this CME never threatened our planet, but the CME actually blasted many other planets, because it was very large in scope and STEREO-A being, of course, very much the focus of this CME and that is why we could get such wonderful data. But, it was not at all in the direction of our planet.
Chris: But, I had read somewhere, and maybe you can correct me on this, I had read that if the timing had been off by a week, that could have been different.
Lika: Yes, but a week is a long time, right. I mean, the sun rotates every 27 days, right, its central meridian. So, if you have a week, that is a huge sort of quadrature almost. That is a big distance.
Chris: Right. Okay. So, it blasted safely off towards STEREO-A, which did manage to catch a lot of the data on it. So, if it had hit, though, if we had been sort of right in the barrels of this, what would have happened, do you think?
Lika: Well, you know, I mean I am a scientist, and I work at NASA and our job is to actually understand these events and not really predict this. Even NOAA will spend a lot of time–NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center–really analyzing the data and sort of giving out information on impact. So, if I look at what NOAA does, they have several scales. They have indices for such events. So, one is a geomagnetic storm index, which is disturbances in the geomagnetic field caused by a CME in the solar wind, okay. And, they have a scale of G1 to G5. They have a solar radiation storm and again, these elevated levels of radiation that occur when the number of energetic particles increase, which can happen through a solar flare or the shock generated by the coronal mass ejection as it is plowing through the interplanetary medium, again, has a scale of S1 to S5. Then, we have radio blackouts, disturbances of the ionosphere that is caused by X-ray emissions from the sun, and that scale is R1 to R5.
This was a significant enough event that one would probably put it in the category of G4, G5. And, if you kind of go and then look at the NOAA charts that kind of associates the impact with that kind of activity scale, you can say that there would be widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems and, of course, some grid systems can experience complete collapse or blackout. Spacecraft operations will be hampered, uplink, downlink and tracking of satellites. Radiation level would go up, so there is extravehicular activities going on by astronauts–they might be in danger. There will be complete high frequency radio blackouts on the entire sunlit side of the earth. Navigation would be hampered. And, all of this would then lead to the corollary effects, because we depend on many of these functionalities to work properly for our modern technological society to function the way it does today.
So, it had the potential, but that is all we can say, because we have not experienced it, and without the real data, all we can do is do the extrapolation.
Chris: Now, I want to go back to something you said before, which was this was traveling so fast that it crossed that gulf between the sun and the earth in 19 hours, is that correct?
Lika: In 19 hours, right, and this is the distance that is about 93 million miles.
Chris: In 19 hours, so this question then becomes how far—when do we get our first read of something like that coming? Let’s assume that this one was traveling towards us, heading, crossing the gulf in 19 hours. Our satellites are some distance in between the sun and the earth. How much warning would we have had in time, if this had been coming right at us?
Lika: We would have had pretty much the same amount of warning. So, we are fortunate today, and I mean right now–it will always not be like this—in that we have complete coverage of the sun from all angles. So, 24 hours, seven days a week, we have solar dynamics observatory along the sun/earth line. We have the two STEREO spacecraft. Now, of course, they are behind and they will kind of turn around and come back again. They are kind of following the same orbit as earth, but one leading, one lagging. We have SOHO, again, that L1 point, okay. So, all of these spacecraft are actually giving us an unprecedented view of the front side and the far side of the sun. So, if there is an active region that produces a coronal mass ejection, we actually catch it with our satellites, we know it. And, because we have so many satellites in place and some of them distributed away from sun/earth line, we are better able to triangulate sometimes these coronal mass ejections and get a good estimate of the speed with which these structures are traveling. So, we get the speed almost right away.
Once we have seen this and once we know the speed with which this is traveling, then one can calculate essentially at what speed will it go through the interplanetary medium, and there is a little bit of modeling involved there. And, so the NOAA forecasters at that point actually begin—and we have good, we have decent models now—they begin to put out warnings to power grid operators, to satellite operators, to aviators and everyone who is concerned about this. And, depending on the speed, of course, we will say that it is going to come in 20 hours or typically, it is more like three days. They travel–the speed is rarely this fast. When you see such a fast CME lift off from the surface of the sun, you already know that there is… this is big. And, so you begin to kind of warn people. And, really, not us, but NOAA.
Chris: So, in this particular case, I assume there would be a little calculation time, a little triangulation time, but it would have been something less than 19 hours, maybe 18 hours of warning. How long?
Lika: No, it could, the warning, yes. The minute the CME lifts, you do your calculations and you calculate the speed and you begin to give rough estimates in the beginning, and then you do your modeling and you get more precise as it is traveling and we are tracking it, because we have heliospheric imagers that track the CMEs into interplanetary medium. So, you keep refining it, but if it is coming in 20 hours, that is kind of your window and you would have started pretty much right away, right in the beginning.
Chris: Great. So, how would a citizen be warned, or if a citizen wanted to say, “Well, I’d like to unplug my computers and do some things like that." How would we get in on that warning system? Is there a website to go to?
Lika: Yes. So, NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, Boulder, Colorado, they actually put out these warnings, watches, alerts. Just like terrestrial weather, there are levels that they put out. I think you could subscribe to their alerts, watches, or you could go to their website and find out what exactly is happening, what is space weather now, whether the conditions are calm, are there any active regions on the sun that is brewing. You can get all that information. And, of course, on the NASA site, we are providing most of the observations, the science analysis and you can actually get a visual representation of what is happening on the sun, and the real-time calculations of some of these events.
Chris: Now, I would like to be sure that we continue to have satellite assays tracking the sun. How is the program—do the satellites need replacement at some point and is there general support that this is a very important thing we are doing?
Lika: I would say that there is a recognition that this is an important thing to be doing, but there are so many important things to do and so little resources available for that. So, I cannot say. That is why I mentioned, today we are ideally placed and we are studying this. We are learning more science, all of that. But, many of our satellites are actually aging satellites. STEREO, for example, which has been absolutely vital by providing the new perspective and the new science understanding of these coronal mass ejections, which leads to better forecasting essentially. They are eight years old. They are now behind or on the other side, far side of the sun at two AUs from us, and we are getting very limited amount of data from STEREO, because of signal, because they are so far away.
Solar dynamics observation was launched in 2010 and SOHO was launched in 1995. And, one of the most important satellites, which is kind of really the final sort of satellite that tells us whether a solar storm is going to be a geomagnetic storm is the ACE satellite, Advanced Composition Emission satellite, and this is about 17 years old.
With ACE, what happens is we actually measure the magnetic field's trend and its direction. That is the first time we are able to figure out what magnetic signature this particular coronal mass ejection is carrying. Now, the strength of a CME is very much a function of the polarity of this embedded magnetic field, okay. And, so the polarity dictates whether the storm will be short lived, very strong, stronger storms, all of this depends on that. And, then how this is going to induce geomagnetic currents. And, if you think of our grid, it is the geomagnetic currents that then begin to trip the voltage in transformers. So, ACE is in the final sort of line of the Sun-Earth distance of 93 million miles, which determines weather. So, when we determine the polarity of the CME with ACE, from that point we have roughly 30 minutes to say that this is going to be intense or the magnetic strength is weak, so yes, there will be fluctuations. That is when you determine the scale that NOAA puts out, whether it is G1 to G5 storm, basically.
Chris: So, that is 30 minutes of heads up on that one.
Lika: Right. And, that satellite is—you asked the question. That satellite is 17 years old. However, I think soon, next year, in 2015, there will be another satellite that will be launched, and this is working with NOAA. NASA is refurbishing the satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory, Discover, and in part it will be to replace ACE’s capabilities eventually. And, so kind of looking forward to that launch, because that will provide the much-needed backup we need in case ACE were to fail today.
Chris: Right, right. Well, fantastic. So, what I would like to know is if there is anything in this 2012 event that caused people who are maybe not on the science side, but more on the civilian infrastructure side or government infrastructure side, did they really come and take notice of this? Did it lead to an increased sort of sense of urgency around hardening our systems, or that maybe there is more we could do to be ready for such an event if something like this did happen to come towards earth?
Lika: I think the science papers have just been coming out, so there have been lots of sort of presentations of the science results that have come out, and people are beginning to pay more attention. So, for example, at NASA, we have our advisory committees that are kind of beginning to ask the question, “Well, what is the probability of such an event happening in 10 years, in 50 years?” And, we are trying to get a handle—remember, now we are working with a situation of probability of low data, right. We have data only from sort of 50 years, and it is not a great way to extract probabilistic information if you are looking at 10, 50, 100 years. We do not have a lot of solid data, I would say. But, these are the areas we–these are the kind of questions we are beginning to ask, and probably will go forward trying to answer in the future with the observations that we have in place. And, policy makers will have to make decisions at that point. Because, most of the system right now kind of depends quite a bit on research satellites and research models.
Chris: Right. Well, I remember from our last conversation, you said that the probability of one of these CMEs does go up with solar activity, but we are not really in a super solar—in 2012, we were not in any super active part of the cycle. So, it just goes to show that sometimes they do just sort of pop out. So, yep, without a whole lot of data, I guess getting solid statistics is hard.
Lika: Right. And, in fact, with solar cycles the frequency of flares and coronal mass ejections will increase. That is just the frequency. The severity of any of these events has really little correlation with solar cycle phase. In fact, often the bigger storms have happened during the declining phase of the solar cycle, and that is what we are beginning to—and, you know, I mean, interestingly enough, we are actually going now into the declining phase of the solar cycle. So, the point I would like to make is that we really do not know enough and we cannot take our eyes off of the sun heliosphere system.
Chris: Well said. And, I certainly support that. So, what we are going to do is we will put this out and I would love to drum up more interest in really talking about ways in which we could be better prepared. Because, 1859, historically speaking, not that far ago, 1989 not that far ago. So, these things happen, and it would be great to know that we have sort of tested and gotten prepared, because the world is increasingly dependent on these technologies. Heck, I do not even know how I would get around without GPS anymore, right?
Lika: Yes, in fact, what is interesting, you know, I think, I really am appreciating the way you are phrasing it. For too long, we are sort of caught up by the way we described these phenomenon in the past. I think in the context of present, we need to rethink how to pose questions. So, what do we mean by "Carrington Event?" You often hear this word. If you think about it, as I mentioned, you know, Carrington Event has become a touchstone, right? So, researchers refer to it often when discussing severe solar storms and their possible effects on modern society. However, if you listen carefully, you will hear that Carrington Event has two different meanings. So, literally, we know it is the event itself, right, that is these solar flares and geomagnetic storms in September 1859. But, operationally, what we are trying to say that this is a solar storm so severe that it can have widespread societal consequences. Now, pinning down the literal Carrington Event is not easy, because it happened at a time when we did not have space weather sensors and satellites. There are very few data. So, this is not easy.
But, what we need to do now is actually ask the question differently, okay. Because, I think to bring our modern society to a halt, I do not think we need an event that is as large as a Carrington Event. It could be much smaller, simply because of the connectedness of our power grid and also the entire technological system as you were saying. We do not know how to operate without our GPS system.
So, we need to pose, maybe sort of change the way we ask the question. Instead of defining the storm and extrapolating the consequences from there, it might make more sense to start with a set of consequences and work backward to the storm. So, we could say, for instance, define a modern Carrington Event to be any storm that disturbs our ionosphere so badly that scintillations severely degrades GPS navigation and time transfer for at least two weeks. Now, what kind of storm condition would give rise to that? And, that is why I was giving you that list in the beginning. When you ask someone, "big event," it depends in what way, what impact are we looking at.
Chris: Well said. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And, it is a little unknowable to me, I just have a sense that we have a very interconnected, very interwoven, very electronically-based society and much depends on that operating as is. And, it would not take much to disrupt it, because we know, for instance, what happened in Fukishima shows us what happens when a nuclear power plant loses electricity. It is not a good thing. So, I think that is interesting to take it from the other direction and say "how much of a disruption are we willing to accept, and where is that threshold?" And, then try and map that back into what kind of event we think from the sun would potentially precipitate that, and then you can say with, I think, greater sense of confidence, “Here’s the probability of that happening.”
Lika: Exactly. Because, right now, we are in a place where we are always trying to do this Carrington Event kind of event and determine consequences, and we do not have a good sense of that.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, just based on how the rest of the world works, it is probably a power loss sort of a relationship. So, it is just hanging out over there at some very infrequent, but very large thing that can happen, and we do not have enough data to really fit the curve and know what we are looking at yet.
Lika: You know, what is interesting is that some people of late think that we used to think that this is like a low-probability, high-impact event, happens every 100 years or so. Some researchers are doing calculations—and I would just kind of treat it as research and research with small numbers—is that the probability could be much higher, probability could be 10, 12%. Now, that probability that they are referring to is, of course, a solar storm that would be so severe, but the impact side of it is something else, right? We still have to make that connection to actually have an impact on our environment. And, we know very little about that.
Chris: Yes, yes. Interesting. Well, I really want to thank you so much for your time today, and I would invite anybody listening, take a look at that 2012 event. I just started to find some of the papers that have come out. I will link to a couple of them. There are some nice presentations. It was a focus of a recent conference this past summer. And, so it is really, there is a lot of data there. And, it was pretty exciting, a) that we caught the data and so it tells us how important it is to be watching, and to be watching even in places that are not directly aimed at us. And, it is just fascinating if you like science to check out really what this event was. And, then thirdly, is to really think through if that had been pointed at us, then what? And, I think those are questions that, in my estimation, we are still at the early stage of asking. So, I would invite people to explore them on their own.
Lika, any last words there?
Lika: I think you summed it up very well, and if you are interested I could provide you with some of our models that actually will show the propagation of these coronal mass ejections throughout the heliosphere. You know, any more, our focus is just not on our planet. We have assets on every planet pretty much. Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, they are all affected by these coronal mass ejections. And, NASA has desire, of course, of leaving low-earth orbit and going into deep space voyage, go to Mars, moon, and to do that, I think having an understanding of these phenomenon, sort of almost taking a step from so-called space weather into the domain of interplanetary space weather.
Chris: Hmm. I had not thought of that, the fact that we have those assets on the other planets. So, yes, please send those models along. I would love to take a look at them and dig into this a little bit more deeply. So, thank you for that. And, thank you so much for your time today.
Lika: I appreciate it. Thank you, Chris.
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