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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth Enters Period of Turbulent Solar Weather

Air Date: Week of

During a solar storm the sun’s magnetic field becomes unstable and we get space weather. The Earth is now coming off a quiet period and entering a period of heightened solar activity. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration space weather predictor Joseph Kunches who says that space weather can affect systems like the electric power grid and GPS.


GELLERMAN: If you think the weather on earth has been weird lately, wait till you hear about the weather in space. In terms of sheer destructive potential, storms from intense solar flares striking the planet make terrestrial weather puny in comparison. And we're on the cusp of a period of increased activity. Joseph Kunches is a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to the program!

KUNCHES: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, space weather. What’s space weather?

KUNCHES: Well, space weather is the condition that occurs when the sun erupts, basically. And the sun is an interesting star, given the fact that it's our closest star and it’s basically responsible for all life on Earth, but other than that, it also has a magnetic field. And the magnetic field sometimes strengthens and sometimes wanes, and when it’s strong, the magnetic field can become unstable and let go its energy and we get all sorts of stuff that we refer to as space weather.

GELLERMAN: Lately, in the last few years, we’ve been going through a quiet cycle.

NASA Video of the solar flare eruption on 7 June 2011

KUNCHES: Yes, that’s right. It’s known that sunspots are markers for these strong magnetic fields. And the record is pretty conclusive that there is about an 11 year season- the so-called solar cycle. And as you suggest, it’s been very quiet, but has, as you suggest in the last six months or so - conditions are starting to change and that’s the emergence of the brand-new solar cycle.

GELLERMAN: Well, you’re one of the chief sunspot predictors and solar weather forecasters, what are you predicting?

KUNCHES: Well, I think the activity will continue to pick up. We saw a big flare a few days ago, we saw one this morning. Through the rest of 2011 we can expect an increase in these eruptive types of activity. The height of the solar cycle is probably going to be around two years from now in the middle of 2013.

GELLERMAN: I guess the real thing that we have to worry about is called: ‘coronal mass ejections ’- do I have that right?

KUNCHES: The first manifestation of the eruption is what’s called the solar flare, which is a little bit like a lightning bolt. Another part of the eruption is when the outer solar atmosphere, the corona, gets blown away in conjunction with the flare, and we refer to this as a coronal mass ejection. And the sun goes about throwing out coronal mass ejections as it will and sometimes we just happen to get in the way.

Joseph Kunches says that we especially need to be wary of coronal mass ejections. (Photo: NASA/SDO)

GELLERMAN: So you have to predict, not just when we will have one of these events, but if it is going to hit us!

KUNCHES: We absolutely have to predict the path of it. It’s a little bit like being a hitter in a baseball game. We watch the coronal mass ejection be the pitch and we have to estimate if it’s coming right at us and if it's fast or slow, and even if it’s going to curve or not.

GELLERMAN: And if I’m on Earth and there’s a solar storm, I’m not going to know it, or I will know it?

KUNCHES: Space weather is kind of esoteric to people. It isn’t the wind that blows the hat off your head or your garbage can down the street, but rather it’s the conditions far up in the atmosphere that affects systems, electric power being one. So when then sun is eruptive, a byproduct of that is a problem for electric power grid operators.

In the extreme, those currents go quickly out of control, and, for example back in 1989, there was a solar eruption that caused the power grid in eastern Canada - hydro-Quebec - to go from proper, functioning conditions, to a total black-out in 92 seconds, as a consequence of the induced currents from the space weather.

GELLERMAN: So we have systems like power grids that could be zapped. What about things like GPS satellites? If there was bad weather, would it affect my ability to find directions?

KUNCHES: Bad space weather could affect your ability to find directions because the signal that comes from the GPS satellite, not the satellite, but its transmission, gets affected as it tries to make its way through this charged-particle environment that lies overhead and is very turbulent and irregular when space weather is bad.

GELLERMAN: What about critical national security systems that depend on GPS?

KUNCHES: I think it’s fair to say that every use of GPS, be it a defense or national security use, be it a commonplace use of GPS - the single largest error source of that system is space weather.

The Aurora Borealis is a manifestation of solar weather. (Photo: Senior Airman Joshua Strang, Wikimedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: I was reading that we had intense solar weather back in 1921, and then the granddaddy, at least in terms of recorded history here in the United States, was 1859.

KUNCHES: Yes, there are indications that in 1859, the so-called Carrington Event was really quite spectacular in terms of the impacts on the technology as they existed in those days. The telegraph wires were actually affected and lit up, literally, with sparks and all sorts of indications of electrical currents.

GELLERMAN: Would you say that our electric grid, would you say that that’s more vulnerable today?

KUNCHES: I think the power grid is more vulnerable today. It is highly interconnected, and a pulse to a part of the grid will ripple through it, will have to be accounted for, even if that pulse occurs very distant from where you are. If it’s in the northeast United States, here in the west, the operators would have to know of this condition so they can take that into account, just because things are so very interconnected now.

GELLERMAN: A recent National Academy of Science report paints a very bleak picture of what could happen to our society if we really do get zapped by powerful solar weather.

KUNCHES: The National Academy report tried to look at these technologies and tried to put some estimates as to if things went badly, what would be the effects on satellite navigation and power grids and other things. And one of the issues with the electric power grid is that many of the key elements, the transformers, are not off-the-shelf devices. And if you were to damage a few of them there aren’t many ready spares around, so some of the angst would be related just to the delay time in terms of trying to replace these things and get the grid back up and running again.

GELLERMAN: And building transformers when you don’t have electricity is probably pretty darn difficult.

KUNCHES: That would be a real trick, wouldn’t it? (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: The National Academy report about the potential damage from solar weather says that it could cost an estimated two trillion dollars and the chaos could last 10 years.

KUNCHES: I think the National Academy tried to expose some of the soft-spots in terms of technologies and make estimates given the kinds of dependencies we’ve developed now. If the sun were to erupt - and there’s no reason to think that it won’t - the only question is when, and will we be ready for that when it occurs.

GELLERMAN: Joseph Kunches, thank you so very much.

KUNCHES: Bruce, you're welcome.

GELLERMAN: Joseph Kunches is a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.



Visit the National Weather Services’ Space Weather Prediction Center

For more videos and pictures, visit NASA’s “Having a Solar Blast Update.”


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