The Catastrophic Potential of Severe Space Weather

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Tornadoes, earthquakes, climate change, tsunamis and comets… For screenwriters who want to tackle the disaster film genre, the hardest part might be choosing how to destroy the Earth. Look at all the options! Plus, if you aren’t satisfied with the standard disasters above, there are limitless options in epidemics, aliens, explosions and the newest disaster to entertain audiences, severe space weather

If its ominous name didn’t clue you in, severe space weather is bad news. Much like earth-based weather, it’s uncontrollable. It also has the potential for massive destruction and disruption of modern technology. Imagine the collapse of power grids in seconds, radio blackouts, satellite interference, and airline operations disruptions in less than a minute. Without electricity, how would you communicate with your family, call 9-1-1, get clean water or keep food from spoiling? With a radio blackout, how would airplanes land safely? Severe space weather has the potential to be a catastrophic event.

Magnetic Storms from the Sun

Severe space weather is the result of large-scale eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun’s corona. Known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), these eruptions can create magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and Earth’s upper atmosphere, which can damage power lines, cause blackouts, and even dislocate Earth’s radiation belts, damaging satellites.

Thankfully, such magnetic storms are classified as low frequency. To drive a magnetic storm, CMEs must be fast and massive, launched from near the center of the Sun and directed toward Earth’s magnetic field. CMEs also need to have a strong magnetic field with the opposite orientation of Earth’s magnetic field. Still, even classified as low frequency, when these conditions are met, CMEs are high-consequence occurrences. 

Take, for example, the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec grid in March 1989, which left the province of Quebec without electricity for 9 hours. The outage closed schools, businesses, public transportation and grounded flights at Dorval Airport. Citizens found themselves stuck in traffic on darkened roads without street signals and many workers were stranded in office buildings, elevators and stairwells. The storm was felt in other parts of North America as well, with approximately 200 storm-related events reported (including the failure of a transformer at a New Jersey nuclear power plant).

Amazingly, the 1989 magnetic storm pales in comparison to other magnetic storms. According to a study by the Metatech Corporation, the magnetic storm of May 1921 included geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that would have been 10 times more intense than those responsible for the 1989 storm. While the 1921 storm had little societal impact, a similar storm today could result in blackouts affecting more than 130 million people. 

The most severe space weather events on record were the magnetic storms of August-September 1859, also known as the Carrington Event. The CME behind the Carrington Event was first seen by Richard Carrington, a British amateur astronomer. Nearly 17.5 hours after it was observed, the powerful CME impacted the Earth’s magnetosphere, triggering a severe magnetic storm that disrupted telegraph networks around the world. The rare, fast-moving (CMEs normally impact Earth 3-4 days after being observed) CME was  accompanied by a solar energetic particle event four times more intense than the most severe solar energetic particle event of the space age. 

Preparing for Severe Space Weather

Imagine the magnetic storms of 1859 and 1921 occurring today. Power grid outages have the potential to affect communications, transportation, banking, commerce, manufacturing, energy, government, education, healthcare, public safety, emergency services, food and water supply and sanitation.  Spacecraft operations, as well as space-based position and navigation, could also be affected by severe space weather. So while CMEs and magnetic storms are infrequent occurrences, the risks are high. 

Over the last 20 to 30 years, improvements and precautions have been made to secure modern technology from severe space weather. Space weather services, such as NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and the U.S. Air Force’s Weather Agency, can provide forecasts, warnings and alerts 1-3 days in advance of a severe space weather event. Airlines have instituted alternate routes with lower altitudes to prevent radio blackouts during magnetic storms and GPS receivers are receiving new signals and codes to remove errors created by magnetic storms. Critical steps are still needed, though, to provide longer-term forecasts and eliminate potential vulnerabilities.

“Space Weather Katrina”

A large coronal mass ejection observed on June 9, 2002.A “space weather Katrina” is a rare but conceivable event. It’s even the major plotline of the 2005 film Solar Attack. Solar flares, generally observed with a CME at the start of a space weather event, have also been included in a few disaster film plots, such as the 1990 film Solar Crisis, in which a solar flare is predicted to fry the Earth. The Sun itself has a starring role in several disaster films. The 2007 film Sunshine, for example, takes on the question, “What if the Sun suddenly started to die?”

These films aren’t 100% scientifically accurate (Solar Attack’s plot relies on a telegraph wired even though the Carrington Event disrupted telegraph service), but the important point is the scientific basis of the ideas. Disaster films are a great medium to explore the “what-ifs” of science. What if a severe space weather event destroyed all modern technology? What if you were trapped in an elevator for 9 hours because a CME killed a power grid? What if a person is stationed on a spacecraft when a magnetic storm eliminates all forms of communication with Earth? 

The questions severe space weather poses are fascinating and we bet the science-based fictional answers are, too. So, essentially, next time you want to fictionally destroy the Earth, look no further than severe space weather.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.