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Could solar storms really blast Earth with one gargantuan power outage?

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA image of coronal mass ejection

Blackouts happen. The lights tremble for a few seconds, then go completely dark along with everything else, including internet and WiFi. You’re stuck with flashlights until the electric company can fix whatever destruction the storm outside wrought on the wires. Usually, everything switches back on in the next day or two. But what if we experienced a power outage so huge there was no recovering from it so soon?

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — which happen when the sun vomits an immense amount of plasma and magnetic field material from its outer atmosphere, or corona, into space — could actually destroy the infrastructure of electricity on Earth if we don’t figure out how to shield ourselves. Geomagnetic storms caused by CME shockwaves can be lethal to Earth’s electrical infrastructure. These shockwaves can strike Earth in less than 24 hours. This is why an international group of scientists has developed a new way to study extreme space weather like CMEs so we can better predict and prepare for them.

CMEs belch out enormous clouds of solar plasma that jet through the void at anywhere from 60 to over 2,100 miles per second. Besides obliterating our electricity, they can influence natural catastrophes like floods and earthquakes. Even scarier is that they aren’t always alone. The new research found that superfast CMEs which emerge from the same solar region as slightly earlier CMEs, then crash into them in space, can trigger the most powerful geomagnetic storms. Double blobs of plasma are going to have the advantage of faster particle acceleration. The faster these clustered CMEs hurtle towards Earth, the harder they can potentially hit.

“During different solar cycle phases, the typical declustering timescales of fast CMEs are [an elapsed time of] 28–32 hr [until the system completely decays], irrespective of the very different occurrence frequencies of CMEs during a solar minimum and maximum,” said the scientists, who recently published a study in The Astrophysical Journal. “These findings suggest that [the elapsed time until total decay] for extreme events may reflect the characteristic energy build-up time for large flare and CME-prolific active regions.”

Successive coronal mass ejections can be powered one of two ways. Sympathetic eruptions happen when one eruption ignites another, while homologous eruptions are multiple CMEs that surface from the same active region. A previous study found that when there is already an existing CME, if another intense eruption follows and interacts with it only a few hours later, that cluster will emit greater flows of solar energetic particles (SEPs). These particles include oxygen ions, helium ions, subatomic particles and some gamma rays, and can traverse the darkness at a fraction of the speed of light. Besides being able to reach Earth in less than a day, CMEs can also wreak havoc on spacecraft. Astronauts will really be in trouble if the geomagnetic storm burns out electricity on the home turf, because in space, no one can hear…you know.

It wasn’t too long ago that a monster coronal mass ejection just missed us. The damage from this phenomenon would have otherwise meant lights out for Earth up to 10 years, and restoration would have run into the trillions of dollars. That was 2012. The worst one that bombarded our planet took out North America’s entire telegraph system in 1859. Back then, telegraphs were a big deal. Internet is a much bigger deal. You wouldn’t be reading this right now if it wasn’t for the internet. Something similar and possibly worse could happen again at any time, and the effects would be severe enough to make a takeover by Godzilla look like nothing (even if he did smash some electrical wires).

“Associating the clustering properties of fast CMEs with the disturbance storm time index at Earth suggests that fast CMEs occurring in clusters tend to produce larger geomagnetic storms than isolated fast CMEs,” the scientists said. “This may be related to CME–CME interaction producing a more complex and stronger interaction with Earth's magnetosphere.”

Now that a new solar cycle has started, nothing monstrous is expected, but you never know. Stars can get temperamental. If that happens, let’s hope our star throws a tantrum towards another planet.

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