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NASA: Our Technology-Dependent Lifestyle is Vulnerable to Solar Flares

Understanding the potential impact of CMEs
Saturday, August 3, 2013, 10:45 AM

In 1859, a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) known as the Carrington Event slammed into Earth. Aurorae, normally observable only near the poles, appeared in the sky as far south as Hawaii and Cuba, providing enough light to read by at night. The then-new global telegraph systems in Europe and America were brought down. Reports of sparking pylons and operators receiving electric shocks abounded - there were even accounts of people being able to send and receive messages over wires that had been disconnected from their power supplies.

Fast-forward to 2013. Our planet is orders of magnitude more dependent on its technology systems. And a solar event the size of the Carrington Event has not recurred since. How vulnerable are we, should another one arrive?

Chris sits down with Dr. Lika Guhathakurta, NASA astrophysicist and heliophysics expert, to understand the science behind CMEs and their potential risk to our way of life:

A geomagnetic storm causes a disturbance in all magnetic fields. That disturbance causes fluctuation in current. And then there are solar electric particles.

So there are many things going on. You can have all your satellites become vulnerable to a single event upset from solar energetic particles, which is essentially anything electronic that interacts with these particles. You can have fluctuation in the ionosphere, which causes scintillation; that causes problems or complications. You can have complication with navigation, causing problems with high altitude aircraft, especially in the polar route. They can’t fly in that zone. High altitude aircraft and crew are exposed to radiation hazards. Astronauts can be exposed to radiation hazards.

Most importantly, these magnetic fluctuations essentially lead to induced ground current that can actually cause significant fluctuations in our power grids. And power grids become quite vulnerable. There have been occasions where we haven’t had Carrington-type events, but even smaller events have led to failure or damage of transformers, which then leads to wide-scale blackouts without power. 

When you have such a massive electromagnetic disturbance on Earth, anything that is operated by electricity is vulnerable to fluctuation – anything. You know, so your railway switches, your pipelines -- things that you don’t even associate with space weather -- you find will be fairly susceptible to this massive onslaught of the magnetic disturbance in all geospace.

What I think we don’t fully appreciate today is that how dependent our life has become on technology. And a lot of these technologies are no longer radiation-hardened. And so they are actually vulnerable to not only extreme storms but even medium or mild storms.

And as you know, life without electricity in modern day has its impacts. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Dr. Lika Guhathakurta (39m:11s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson, and today we are joined by Lika Guhathajurta, NASA astrophysicist and program scientist for the STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) mission and lead scientist on NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) initiative. Lika works as a scientist, a mission designer, instrument builder, teacher, and spokesperson for NASA’s heliophysics division. And I’ve asked Lika on the program to discuss the science behind coronal mass ejections, otherwise known as CMEs.

Now, a massive CME called the Carrington Event occurred in 1859, and it disabled much of the world’s then-new telegraph system. What would be the effect if a similar event happened today? Is our much more technology-dependent world more or less vulnerable? How likely is such an event? And should we be more prepared than we are, or are we okay, given the probabilities involved?

Lika, I really appreciate your joining us today.

Lika Guhathajurta: Thank you.

Chris Martenson: So let’s start at the beginning. Please describe a coronal mass ejection, or a CME. What is it, and what causes them?

Lika Guhathajurta: We actually start with our star, the sun. And so you know, we actually live in the outdoor atmosphere of our star. And I don’t think most people recognize that. The sun is continuously losing material in the form of low-density wind. These are nothing. These are not wind in a traditional sense, but really electrons and protons blowing out from the sun. This is the outer most atmosphere, otherwise also known as the solar corona.

The sun is a very ordinary star, so from an astrophysical point of view, there is nothing very distinct about it. But believe it or not, this is the star that has made life possible here on Earth. And we still don’t know – we are still looking for life out there.

Now, what makes sun interesting from the point of your solar system or for inhabitants on this planet Earth? The sun is an ordinary star, but it is a magnetic variable star. And so what that means is that the sun, like earth, has its own magnetic field. It generates a magnetic field that varies with time, and it varies as a cycle every eleven years. That’s the most distinct cycle. That solar magnetic activity goes from very high to very low, kind of like on terrestrial weather scale, El Nino - El Nina kind of concept, maximum - minimum.

And so when we have solar maximum activity is strong, we have what’s called, on the surface of the sun, the yellow ball that we can see with unaided eye, dark regions with viewers and these dark regions are called sunspots. Now these regions are dark not because they are not hot, but because they are a little bit cooler compared to the rest of the surface. And the reason they’re a little bit cooler is because they harbor an intense magnetic field, and this magnetic field essentially inhibits transport of energy from below to the surface. That’s kind of where I would like to end and then launch into CME.

These sunspot regions, which are also called active regions, often are the regions where we have a solar storm, which otherwise, in our technical language, we would call solar flares or coronal mass ejection.

Now, a solar flare is a very intense release of magnetic energy, and this is when, you know, it gets very, very sudden and very intense and very bright. And so the Carrington Event that you were referring to was actually a solar flare that was observed way back in 1859 by Richard Carrington, and I’ll come back to that.

But during the solar flare, we can also have other solar storms happening side by side, in conjunction, and that would be a coronal mass ejection. And a coronal mass ejection is that wind we have – if you actually watch NASA satellites, movies from the Solar Dynamics Observatory you will see that there are large loops rising above that photosphere, which is that yellow ball. And these magnetic field lines will eventually, with time, get twisted and knotted and chilled – much like if you take a rubber band or a slinky and keep twisting it, it will eventually tear open. Same thing happens with a magnetic field line. They eventually tear open just from the pressure built up, and then when that happens, what is released in the process is millions of tons of clouds in the form of magnetized plasma.

Now, plasma is otherwise the full state of matter. So it’s not gas, it’s not liquid, it’s not solid. It is closer to sort of gaseous state, but it is not neutral; it is electrified. So all the atoms in plasma lose their outer electrons, and the atoms become finite. So what you have in plasma is a soup of electrons and protons, and that’s what is released along with the impeded magnetic field in a coronal mass ejection.

A coronal mass ejection can be a huge in terms of latitude and longitude; it can engulf our Earth and many more Earths. They can be really massive in size, and they also expel a huge amount of matter and energy, which then starts propagating through the interplanetary medium.

Interplanetary medium is the distance between sun and Earth, and it’s about ninety-three million miles between our planet, Earth, and the sun. So these materials can be released at the speed of as low as twenty to forty kilometers per second to as far as thousands of kilometers per second. So it starts moving through the interplanetary medium, running into other materials that exist already, creating shockwaves much like we do on our planet in the ordinary weather span.

And then these will come impinge on our magnetic spheres. I’m going to stop here, but this is kind of what a coronal mass ejection is, unless you have questions.

Chris Martenson: It sounds very descriptive. So there’s this ejection of stuff, and that stuff is magnetized plasma, this forced state of matter. So we have some charged particles coming at us at anywhere from twenty to thirty thousand kilometers per second to maybe hundreds of thousands of kilometers per second.

Lika Guhathajurta: But not that much, no. It can be as low as sort of a hundred kilometers per second, as high as two or three thousand kilometers per second. And the most ordinary kind of garden-variety CME would be of the order or four or five hundred kilometers per second.

Chris Martenson: Okay. And so when this is released from the sun, it’s related to the amount of magnetic activity. Is that fair to say?

Lika Guhathajurta: It is very much so.

Chris Martenson: Okay, so when we’re at a solar minimum, we might expect fewer of these. When we’re at a solar maximum, we would expect more of these. And we detect the solar maximum through sunspots, I guess, historically. The most sunspot activity would be a solar maximum in terms of magnetic activity and then the opposite would be a minimum, is that correct?

Lika Guhathajurta: Absolutely. Although I kind of want to draw your attention because we are talking about solar cycles, these are all very important concepts that people always don’t think about. So while the frequency of solar storms, coronal mass ejections, typically tend to go down during solar minimum, the intensity of such coronal mass ejections doesn’t. As a matter of fact, most of our most severe solar storms tended to happen during sort of weak solar cycles and during the declining phase of our solar cycles.

So we are talking about frequencies. During solar max, you can get on the order of three to four CMEs per day, whereas during solar minimum, it could be a CME every few days. And that’s kind of the difference.

Chris Martenson: All right, so the frequency is dependent on the minimum/maximum, but the intensity, is that independent? Or do you tend to…?

Lika Guhathajurta: It is. It is quite independent. It really depends on the nature of the magnetic configuration that eventually releases the material, and that is the cause behind a solar flare or coronal mass ejection.

Chris Martenson: All right, so the Earth is somewhere in the sun’s atmosphere, as it were, and this is a very active creature, this sun of ours. And every so often, it tosses out some particles. And when it tosses those out, how would you know if you were in the way of those? I mean, the sun’s a sphere, right? And I assume these ejections, are they happening anywhere on the sphere of the sun? Or does the sun have an orientation it tends to send out more in one direction than another? And where are we in that directional flow, if there is one?

Lika Guhathajurta: Well, these are all really very good questions. Yes, sun is a sphere, and these storms happen. In terms of latitude, there is a spread. But in terms of longitude, it happens all over. So in terms of latitude, we don’t get solar storms, coronal mass ejections from the poles of the sun, north and south poles. They are more kind of in the equatorial and mid-latitude zone is where we get these storms from, not from the poles. But it can come out from any direction in terms of longitude.

And so what’s really interesting is that one of my missions for which I am the program scientist, STEREO, where we sent two spacecraft, these two spacecraft are actually in the same orbit as planet Earth going around the sun, but one is leading Earth and one is lagging Earth. And so these have drifted away from our planet, and they reached opposition. And now, they are actually able to view the far side of the sun.

So in some ways, we have the three points. We have all our satellites in the sun/Earth line, and we have STEREO spacecraft kind of in opposition going behind, because these two spacecrafts are drifting, as I already talked about, twenty-two degrees per year. And so now, we can see the front side and the far side of the sun all at once. And we are downlinking the bits of data, just small amounts of data, just to see what’s happening on the far side of the sun.

And to me, that is just pretty unbelievable. Up until February 2011, which was when the STEREO spacecraft went into opposition to give us the full view of the sun. We were not able to see the far side of the sun with any manmade object. And we not only see with our observatory; what we have done is we have kind of created an app, which is called 3D Sun or I3D Sun, meaning interplanetary 3D sun. And you can get this on iPhones, iPads, I believe also on Android. And you can see what the sun is doing at any time. It is like the sun in the palm of your hand.

Chris Martenson: Well, that’s fantastic. And that’s only since February 2011?

Lika Guhathajurta: That’s when we were able to see the full sun in totality. And you know, it’s not going to last forever, of course, because the STEREO spacecrafts are drifting.

Chris Martenson: That’s just fantastic. So what are we learning from that? And what I’m interested in here, as well, is the idea of how often it is that the Earth might be in the path of – Well, let’s just say of these coronal mass ejections that are happening, what’s the probability of the Earth being in the path of one of these?

Lika Guhathajurta: Probably these are quite high during solar maximum, since we have on the order of three to four CMEs per day. So you can, of course, imagine that one or two will be directed at Earth.

Now remember, anything, any CME that is on the front face of the sun, these are really sort of massive in terms of latitude and longitude, that even if it is not directly sort of square-on towards Earth, it is going to impact Earth. Because these structures often are much more massive than the Earth itself.

But outside of that, the project is, we have calculated from three to four CMEs, typically have been looking at the Earth-directed CMEs – you know, how frequently do we see these, how frequently do they affect our geospace environment. This is routine. We are observing it, we are measuring its velocity, we are measuring its density. We are kind of trying to understand the magnetic topology. And so we are providing some level of understanding towards forecasting events – their speed and when they will arrive on our Earth geospace environment.

What’s real interesting is that when we talk about extreme events like the Carrington Event, we are really not sure when one of those events might occur. Typically, those large extreme events are something that are categorized as high-impact, low-probability events. You can say it happens every hundred years, every hundred and fifty years. But remember, so far, our data has been only from the front face of the sun. We do not know what’s happening on the far side, or we haven’t had sufficient data to determine that.

So our probability to that extent is incomplete, and we are recognizing that even more when we look at the STEREO observation. For example, just last year in July, one of the STEREO spacecraft, STEREO A, which is ahead of our planet Earth, actually witnessed a coronal mass ejection, which was very, very powerful, comparable to the event that was seen in 1972 in between the Apollo era. And then scientists are actually really… because we have the data but it wasn’t all directive. It was really captured by STEREO and we have the data. They’re trying to figure out, if that event was actually directed at all, what would we be facing? So there’s a lot of understanding going on with these new observations.

Chris Martenson: Let’s talk about this for a second, the potential impact. From what I’ve gathered, a coronal mass ejection is tossed out into space. It spreads a little bit like a shotgun blast might, and the Earth will be somewhere within its aim of sight, as it were. And if we’re directly lined up and there’s a lot of particles coming at us, we might record that as a very big event, maybe as high as a Carrington class at some stage. Is that fair? These things are tossed out, and then they spread, and we’re somewhere in its cone of influence, which might have a real variability from edge to edge compared to the center.

Lika Guhathajurta: Mostly. So let’s start with what happens when these particles actually arrive at Earth. So from the sun, we have a good understanding because we can also see this with our satellites. We are measuring them, a huge amount of mass, momentum energy coming at Earth.

Now, a solar storm always does not lead to a geomagnetic storm. What do I mean by a geomagnetic storm? A geomagnetic storm is when a solar storm is actually going to penetrate into our geospace, into our magnetosphere. And you know, most of the time, our magnetosphere is able to sort of deflect, whether it is coronal mass ejections or high-speed solar wind, etc. But if the magnetic orientation of the coronal mass ejection is such that it can actually connect with the magnetic field of the sun, that’s when these particles actually penetrate into our magnetosphere and deposits all of that energy.

And that is something, today, we cannot predict just with our models. The way we predict is with observation. So we have a satellite called ACE – Advanced Composition Explorer – which is about 1.5 million kilometers upward from Earth towards the sun. And that’s where it actually measured in each local environment of the spacecraft the magnetic fields, as well as the particle velocity density, etc. When ACE actually determines the orientation of the magnetic field line with its sensors, that’s when NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center, who’s in charge of providing essentially warning watches to the nation, issues a warning saying whether a storm is going to be mild, medium, severe – kind of like when we do hurricane prediction – depending on the severity, the size of the coronal mass ejection, and the orientation of the magnetic field.

So that is a very key piece. Just because we have a solar storm does not always mean that we are going to have a geomagnetic storm which will have its consequences in our geosphere’s environment. Does that answer your question?

Chris Martenson: Absolutely. So it’s not just size, it’s orientation that really matters here. If it’s pointed right at the Earth, these particles might penetrate. If they do, let’s talk about what happens then. So what is the impact, say, on – let’s go from the outside in – satellites, maybe terrestrial communications. What’s the first thing that might be impacted if you had a really big event that was pointed right at us?

Lika Guhathajurta: I think if the magnetic connectivity is made at that point, you know, what we see are beautiful aurora, both northern and southern lights. And you know, that’s when you know that a solar storm has led to a geomagnetic storm. Now, this is the more sort of beautiful side of solar storms leading to geomagnetic storms. But outside of that, I think what is done is geomagnetic storm really causes disturbance in all magnetic fields. And that disturbance causes fluctuation in current, and then there are solar electric particles.

So there are many things going on. You can have all your satellites become vulnerable to single event upset from solar energetic particles, which is essentially any electronic that interacts with these particles. You can have fluctuation in the ionosphere, which causes scintillation that causes problems for communications. You can have, again, so communication - navigation, these are problems. High-altitude aircraft, especially in the polar route, if they have communication and navigation issues, they can’t fly in that zone. High-altitude aircraft and crew are exposed to radiation hazards. If astronauts are doing EVA, they can be exposed to radiation hazards.

Most importantly, these magnetic fluctuations that essentially lead to also induced ground current can actually cause significant fluctuations in our power grids. And power grid becomes quite vulnerable, and there have been occasions where we haven’t had Carrington type events but even smaller events have led to failure or damage of transformers, which then leads to wide-scale blackout without power. And, you know, life without electricity in modern day has its impacts.

Chris Martenson: Oh, absolutely. We certainly saw what happened in Fukushima and the difficulties they had there once they lost their power grid and ran out of backup power for their reactors over there. Obviously, it’s a very, very big deal.

So let’s talk about this one, in particular, where the magnetic field gets assaulted or distorted. It gives us this induced ground current. Take us back to the Carrington Event in 1859. I’d read some accounts of people being able to send telegraph messages without actually having any power hooked up, I’ve heard of sparking, arcing, even meltdowns. What was happening there?

Lika Guhathajurta: These currents, in fact, you know, are so powerful, your atmosphere almost is getting electrified in this case. So we have not, in real life beyond 1859, experienced a Carrington-type event, which was so powerful that normally the northern and southern lights are essentially in very high latitudes – high latitude north, high latitude south. The Carrington Event, we could see the northern and southern lights down to our northern lights, down to yhe Bahamas. So the magnet is your Earth; it is just compressed on the day side and extends on the magnetic day and night side. And that is what is causing this tremendous fluctuation.

In some sense, you can think of the all these telegraph lines of the nineteenth century like the Victorian Internet of the day. If we had a severe kind of solar storm of the Carrington variety, you can imagine that your Internet will not exist, partly because the Internet would catch on fire. But if you think of how satellites control many of the sort of signals – if you think of how you have power that is required for the Internet to operate, some of these things will just go away if we had a massive storm of the variety of Carrington Event.

What I think we don’t fully appreciate today is that how dependent our life has become on technology. And a lot of these technologies are no longer radiation-hardened. And so they are actually vulnerable to not only extreme storms but even medium or mild storms.

Chris Martenson: This technology, meaning satellites all the way on down to our power grid?

Lika Guhathajurta: Well, power grid is sort of a different routing. I would say satellites, satellite components, for example. You know, when you have such a massive electromagnetic disturbance on Earth, anything that is operated by electricity is vulnerable to fluctuation – anything. You know, so your railway switches, your pipelines. I mean, things that you don’t even associate with space weather you find will be fairly susceptible to this massive onslaught of the magnetic disturbance in all geospace.

Chris Martenson: Now Lika, you mentioned before that STEREO had observed a really big event that we would’ve missed. It happened fairly recently, it might’ve been as big as the 1972 event, and that there had been some studies or analysis around well, what would’ve happened if that pointed at us? Are you familiar with that? I mean, what would’ve happened if something…?

Lika Guhathajurta: This study is not complete. You know, it is not in scientific literature. And so scientists are actually not using real data and putting it in their model to extract what kind of conditions might we have experienced.

Now, the induction of ground current, for example, has been not only on the storm itself, but also the local condition of the ground conductivity of a given region. So not every region will face the same thing.

So there are must many aspects to these analyses that we are still trying to bring together in the form of data and understanding.

Chris Martenson: Sure. Now, in general terms, understanding that local mileage will vary because it’s like fluid dynamics, I assume.

Lika Guhathajurta: Right.

Chris Martenson: There’s just a lot of intervening forces and so it will not be an evenly spread event. It’ll be concentrated in some areas, minimized in others. But generally speaking, if we were looking at, say, induced ground current, and we were thinking about the power grid, what are the possibilities there that could’ve happened if the 1859, or this most recent one, or even the 1972 event – if those really come along, are we relatively prepared in terms of hardened transformers, in particular? That is the component I guess I would be most worried about. But what are we looking at there, and what are the concerns?

Lika Guhathajurta: I think they are very aware of this possibility. You know, we have had an event in 1989, which was a failure of the Hydro-Québec Power Company. And so people are very familiar with what can happen.

Now, are the power grids sufficiently hardened? I won’t venture to answer that question. It is out of my area of expertise. You can read up and you will know. But what I will say is that the kind of warning that we are providing by NOAA through NASA science observations and analyses is very useful for the utility companies. And the basic kind of bottom line is that you develop a strategy to operate the system in a conservative mode so that it can handle such surges of current and voltage without overload. And so NOAA is able to issue this warning once it gets that measurement from ACE, and it is at the order of twenty to forty minutes.

But before that even, when there is a coronal mass ejection happening, it takes anywhere from twelve hours to three or four days for the coronal mass ejection to arrive. So power companies are given that information so people can begin to take mitigating steps.

Chris Martenson: So if we record a big one, we might have a number of days to prepare for it or get ready for it, and then ACE will detect if it’s really bad, and then you’ll have twenty to thirty minutes to put those plans into effect if you thought it was pretty serious. And all the power companies are – this is something that’s clearly on their radar screen, is that right?

Lika Guhathajurta: Absolutely.

Chris Martenson: Okay, fantastic. So, what precautions, if any – are there any concerns for an individual person living here, maybe listening to this, who doesn’t run a power company, just lives at home? Is there any sort of concerns that they should be aware of? Is there any chance that there’s any of this ionizing radiation coming down? You mentioned it’s a hazard for high flyers, right? Pilots, astronauts.

Lika Guhathajurta: Right. It would be important for space tourism, but not for us who have activities on ground level. But the kind of nuisance that they might experience is iPhone signal going on, your GPS devices working erroneously, those sorts of things is something we probably will feel – and do feel – from time to time.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, so we might experience a power loss, fluctuations, a little disruption of communications, and some very nice auroras. Is that about it?

Lika Guhathajurta: That’s about it. Well, I mean, in some ways, if you are dependent on a GPS device for whatever reason – in the transportation sector, for example – that’s not a big loss. So it depends on what sector you come from, where you would know how severe the loss is. These are not necessarily life threatening, but it depends on the situation.

Chris Martenson: Well, and certainly, you mentioned the largest threat, which is unknowable, is the degree to which we’ve become technologically dependent. And essentially, we can’t really know really what the impact of such an event will be until it arrives and we see what happens. It’s hard to run that experiment, I assume.

Lika Guhathajurta: It’s absolutely – other than, you know, writing fiction.

Chris Martenson: Right. And so you’ve mentioned an event in 1972 and 1989. They sound like they’re relatively frequent in a human lifetime. They’re not like a super volcano or something that happens every few hundred thousand years. This is a fairly regular part of living within the sun’s atmosphere, and we would expect them to continue to occur, right?

Lika Guhathajurta: Yes. And then so the 1972 and 1989, again, were much smaller in scale compared to the Carrington Event. We have not seen anything like a Carrington Event.

Chris Martenson: So that was a fairly unique event in our recorded history.

Lika Guhathajurta: That still remains fairly unique from the kind of data that we have.

Chris Martenson: And so I’m going to assume that one was pointed right at us when it let loose, and we were pretty much dead in its sights.

Lika Guhathajurta: Absolutely. In fact, Richard Carrington was projecting the sun onto a paper, which is where he saw in the sun spot region this immensely bright, two wide dots – which eventually was, of course, visual sighting of a solar flare – rapidly changing. He was so excited he called for another witness. And in about sixty seconds, this flare had changed configuration, becoming, of course, less threatening. A solar flare is, as I mentioned, very rapid, and a huge amount of energy.

Chris Martenson: All right, so beyond being prepared for a surge or a loss of electricity, should such an event come, I guess people could take some precautions, maybe flip critical or sensitive electronics on or off if they thought such a thing was coming. It sounds like we’re just pretty much at the mercy of what comes, and we’ll see what happens when another one happens.

And in terms of likelihood, how likely is it that we would see what we might consider a disruptive CME in – pick a time frame; I don’t know – the next twenty years?

Lika Guhathajurta: It really is very difficult to say. I think what we are recently seeing is actually that the solar cycle is weakening in intensity. And the last solar minimum was actually a very long solar minimum.

So the indications are that solar cycles are actually decreasing in intensity. Does that mean that we cannot have a powerful coronal mass ejection? Absolutely not, as I indicated. Most of the strong solar storms came from weaker solar cycles of the declining phase of the solar cycle.

So I think we have to be ever vigilant. We never take our eyes off of terrestrial weather when hurricanes are forming. It is the same thing. You have to continuously monitor the sun. We have to understand the physics of it with sufficient understanding to be able to develop models to predict it. We are getting better at that.

I think one final thing I want to say is that something that we have not paid really a lot of attention to is high altitude aircraft, aircraft that are flying polar rounds, crew and passengers on high altitude aircraft. These people, depending on how often you travel, these people are subjected to radiation. And in some countries, they have begun to kind of measure this. Not here; we haven’t started doing that yet. But there’s a lot of more going on in the aviation. We’re trying to understand the exposure to radiation, and this will become even more important as the space tourism industry flourishes.

Chris Martenson: All right, well, I’m certainly fascinated. If I wanted to track for myself, could I go to the NOAA website and see either their warnings or the ACE data itself in something close to real time? Or how would you track this, if you were interested?

Lika Guhathajurta: Yes, absolutely. If you go to the space or the Prediction Center website, which is in Boulder, Colorado, you will have a lot of information there from the current conditions to you know, long-term forecasting, medium-term forecasting, right now what’s happening. There’s just lots of good information. And you can go to the NASA website for seeing some of the fabulous imagery and models that we have developed from this data.

Chris Martenson: Well, fantastic. That is just absolutely fascinating work. You’ve got a great career; I’m jealous.

We’ve been talking with Lika Guhathajurta. Lika, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it, as I’m sure everyone does listening to this.

About the guest

Lika Guhathakurta

As a NASA astrophysicist, Dr. Madhulika Guhathakurta (also known as Lika) has had the opportunity to work as a scientist, mission designer, instrument builder, directing and managing science programs and teacher and spokesperson for NASA's mission and vision in the Heliophysics Division. Occasionally, she performs all of these roles in a single day.

Before joining NASA Headquarters in December of 1998, her career had focused on studying the importance of the scientific exploration of space in particular understanding the Sun as a star and its influence on the planet Earth, with research focus on understanding the magneto hydrodynamics of the Sun's outermost layer, the solar corona. She has been a Co-Investigator on five Spartan 201 missions on aboard space shuttles (STS-56, STS-64, STS-69, STS-87, STS-95) to study the solar corona in white-light and UV radiation and has authored over 70 publications.

Dr. Guhathakurta is the Lead Program Scientist for NASA's initiative called "Living With a Star" (LWS) which focuses on understanding and ultimately predicting solar variability and its diverse effects on Earth, human technology and astronauts in space. The systems science behind this new kind of weather outside of Earth's terrestrial atmosphere is known as "Space Weather". She is also the Program Scientist for the recently launched twin satellites "Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory" (STEREO). STEREO is a two-year mission which will employ two nearly identical space-based observatories - one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind - to provide the first-ever stereoscopic measurements to study the Sun and the nature of its coronal mass ejections, or CMEs and their impact on space-weather. In addition to leading science missions for the LWS program, Dr Guhathakurta also manages a theory, modeling and data analysis program to integrate scientific output, data, and models to generate a comprehensive, systems understanding of Sun-Heliosphere-Planets coupling. She is the discipline scientist of this new discipline titled "Heliophysics".

Dr. Guhathakurta is leading an effort in an international initiative known as the "International Living With a Star" (ILWS) consisting of all the space agencies of the world to contribute towards the scientific goal for Space Weather understanding. She is the chair of ILWS Steering Committee. She is also a co-chair on the inter-agency group "Committee on Space Weather" (CSW) of the National Space Weather Program, (http://www.spaceweathercenter.org/SWOP/NSWP/1.html).

A native of India, Dr. Guhathakurta received her Masters in Astrophysics from University of Delhi and Ph.D. in Physics from University of Denver and University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Arthur Robey
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Questions.

As an electrician at the Esperance Ports I was waiting for advice. Should I disconnect all the earths to prevent the circulating ground currents blowing the transformer windings?

We have an island electrical system. In otherwords it is not connected to the National grid which has thousands of kms of highly insulated aerials.

Highly connected, inter-dependent, massive grids would react chaoticaly. It would be interesting to find out the energy ratio of the solar storm compared to the energy output of the grid. I suspect that it would be orders of magnitude greater.

My yacht electronics need to be put into a Faraday cage.

sand_puppy's picture
sand_puppy
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Medical care brought to its knees by internet outage.

This article reminds me of the experience our hospital had a couple of weeks ago where all internet communication failed for 3 hours.  The power was still on, but internet communication was not working.  We were almost incapacitated.

1.  We use an electronic medical record and order entry system.  When the clinician types an order into the computer located in the hospital emergency department, that order is transmitted to servers several states away where it is stored and processed.  Then the order is sent back to each hospital department involved in carrying out the order.  So when I would enter "Rocephin 1 gram IVPB" the medical record did not remember it, the pharmacist did not know that it was needed and the nursing staff did not know to give it.  We were brought to a standstill.  Lots of human beings needed to scramble about passing slips of paper and talking to each other.

2.  Now days, everyone with the slightest abdominal pain (yes, even the mildest little gas pain) has an abdominal / pelvic CT scan done.  The images are transmitted over the global fiber-optic network from our location in the USA to Australia (where it is daytime during our night time) where the radiologist reads the films then sends back a text document describing the findings.  This completely stopped.  Scans could be done, but not read.   My early career was in the days prior to CT scanning:  patients were observed, symptoms treated based on the doctors best diagnostic guess, and taken to the operating room for exploratory surgery if they were clearly worsening.  I could see how this approach might be needed again with a prolonged system failure.

And our event did not even involve an electrical outage--just internet communication.

This showed me that complex systems, equipment, and the people that depend on them are very vulnerable.

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Lights out

Sand_puppy, thanks for an insider's view of the consequences of just losing the internet in an emergency room! How interconnected we all are. . .

In the case of a powerful CME, modern life would come to a standstill. Chris touched on the biggest concern when he mentioned Fukushima. Nuclear reactors rely on backup power when the grid goes down but have a limited amount of it available.The utilities are aware of the situation but are they doing much about it? I seem to recall the issue, as always, is money. It costs a great deal to harden the grid. Suggestions have been made to decentralize it so it's not so vulnerable to cascading blackouts. Perhaps others on PP with more information on this can elaborate on the dangers involved.

Also, how will economic collapse affect our ability to keep the grid running? Major climate events? A pandemic? Sigh . . . time to re-read "When Technology Fails" by Matthew Stein for some light bedtime reading material! frown

Joyce

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EMP effect on police operations

Our big city police dept has experienced a few short-lived disruptions of our police radio communications system due to equipment failures and software glitches. The effects were very similar to sand-puppy's hospital experiences just in the law enforcement realm. We too are very dependent on our technology which could be easily disrupted by a relatively small solar disruption. All it would take is an electrical atmospheric disruption large enough to garble our radio signals which travel through the air. Without the ability to communicate between officers and the 9-1-1 call center, emergencies cant be dispatched, officers can't exchange information or call for back up in life threatening crises. When radio failed us the first thing we did was make changes to protect ourselves. The military does the same thing when they have to switch from an offensive to defensive posture. They call it force protection. Radio communications, modern vehicles with their electronics and mobile computer terminals are huge force multipliers. Without them, police response becomes extremely slow and fragmented. In short, the public would largely be on their own without the police. Good luck with that, especially after the predators figure out the police are crippled.

Tom

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Arthur Robey
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Nice responce Tom.

It might pay to get out of Dodge if the sun burps. Knife fights can be messy and regretful. (Mental note to self: Start a worm farm)

Studies have shown that the longer a population is at peace the greater the chances are that it will stay that way. When brutality is normalized (Thank you Hollywood), peoples' models of how to behave are skewed in that direction.

Over here in the small community Esperance Western Australia, I feel relatively safe but my daughter is going to Sydney which is a worry. (What is it with the bright lights? Is she a moth?)

Maybe you could raise the issue of getting some older style cars with distributors and carburettors. Anyone want to shed light on diesels?

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Charged Particle Events and their Impact

Arthur, 
The vehicle issue in the U.S. is that the internal computer mechanisms of post 1982 vehicles are more sophisticated and could potentially be blown by an EMP, and is not specific to diesel or gasoline powered vehicles. 

This is a widely held survival supposition, but I'm not aware of any case where a vehicle has been rendered inoperable by a CME, and Canada experienced a solar flare large enough to destroy automotive circuitry in 1989, and while I didn't find any reports of cars being disabled... doesn't mean it didn't happen, so if someone has some info on that, it'd be good to see.

It's worth taking note that it's hard to pump gas without electricity, and the ongoing impacts of a large scale "Carrington Event" would cripple production of food, water purification/sanitation and turn large cities into pretty dangerous places. Personally, in this kind of situation, I think your boat idea is as close to safe as you can get, depending on where you are in the world. I'd imagine piracy will make a comeback.

As to the question of Diesel, well... you can't make petroleum gas at home.
Diesel, is a different story, so it makes sense to me to convert. 

Tom,

A small part of my job in the military was watching for solar activity, so they train us to recognize warning signs and keep us in close contact with Space Weather folks because of the nearly constant threat of CME's impacting our satellites, geolocation devices and aircraft systems.
Large CME's are definitely of major concern, and play a part in a lot more than people realize, though I think Police/Fire/EMS would have it significantly worse - for the military, everyday is training and we go on missions when tasked... for you, everyday is a mission, and you're lucky to get time for extra training.
Furthermore, the military works in enclaves surrounded by high walls and policed by guards... the local PD is usually a little more exposed. Lots of issues to consider with this type of emergency.

In general, I think that people hear Carrington Event and think "That could ruin up my car!" 
...because that's approachable and we understand it. The implications of destroyed communication satellites and a hammered electrical grid is somewhat outside our frame of reference, because (unless you lived in 1989's Quebec) not many people in the first world really comprehend. 

The most dangerous thing about a Carrington (or any Type Three Emergency - long duration, low intensity) is the gradient from "what we know" into the significantly less understood periods of social instability. That uncertainty is what causes panic, and when you take a population that's used to having clean drinking water a faucet away, and take not only that, but the plant that sanitizes the water away - you're left with a lot of questions that no one is immediately available to answer.

So, adding to the mix the inability of our social infrastructure to provide services that populations count on, and we see the incidences of Type One and Two Emergencies drastically creep into more and more lives, and that's when you need public services the most. With the Carrington Event, the likelihood of these services being available is low. The Carrington Event, in my opinion, could potentially have the same impact as a nuclear war on large scale production and civil and military infrastructure. 

A man I worked for/with worked with Space Weather in the military. A General requested of him a report on Carrington Events and through his description of the literature and overall event, the net take away was:

1. We will have enough time to know what knocked us out, but not nearly enough time to prevent the bulk of the impact through shielding or preventative measures.

2. The Socio-Economic impact would be overwhelming, and it is unlikely that we would recover within a generation or so. 

3. The majority of the systems we have in place in the first world to maintain standard of living would be impacted, from food distrubution to sanitation.

As globalization continues, even smaller CME's have the potential to have troubling impacts on systems of production and delivery, so it's worth giving thought to how people took care of cooking, cleaning, water purification, sanitation, communication and travel without a complex power grid and distribution system... Afterall, there was a perfectly function and productive society in 1859, so the only thing a modern Carrington Event would produce is that terrifying gradient between what we have now and the laborious lifestyle required to live back then... and a population 100 times larger being forced back into that lifestyle...

Needless to say, this complicates things.
Cheers,

Aaron

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sand_puppy
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"One Second After" novel about EMP

I greatly appreciate the thoughts of Aaron, Tom, Arthur, Joyce, Jim H, and a couple of others whose names I can't remember (age related memory impairment is hell!) on the subject of what the world might be like in a rapid collapse scenario.  The CME / EMP scenario is dramatic in that it INSTANTANEOUSLY disrupts modern life.  The basic question over all of this hangs in the air:  "How bad will it get?"

A slower pace of descent would enable more flexible responses, time to plant gardens, fill water bottles, and such.

The novel "One Second After" is one author's fantasy of how this might go.  A very exciting story, too.

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aggrivated's picture
aggrivated
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Diesels

Arthur

I rencently bought an old Mercedes 300d 1986 with manual transmission.  Basically, the car's engine will run until it runs out of fuel or the fuel is shut off.  The shut off valve is vacuum operated.  If that fails there is a manual button on the side of the engine for shut off. The fuel pump is also mechanical. The engine is a 5 cylinder.  The 4 cylinder version is a 240d and is the same technology.  If you have a manual transmission the car can be push started if the electrical system is fried.  Of course, the lights, ventilation , etc might be shot, but the car would run.  These old diesels will also run on filtered fish and chips frying oils. Mileage is about 30miles/gal (USA).

I got it to build resiliance with old technology.  Merc built so many of these things that there are a lot still on the road for daily use, so much so that my insurance company will not consider it a classic even though it qualifies in age.  Parts are available and a properly cared for engine can do 500K miles before overhaul.  A well cared for one will out do that. If you are not looking for a stunning beauty, you can find them at reasonable prices.

Also, the same would apply for old tech diesel tractors.  Look for mechanical injection systems and your engine will not fail due to electrical problems. 

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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The Sun's magnetic field flip imminent ( 3 Months)

"It looks like we're no more than 3 to 4 months away from a complete field reversal," says solar physicist Todd Hoeksema of Stanford University. "This change will have ripple effects throughout the solar system." Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-08-sun-magnetic-field-flip.html#jCp

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All anyone can do

sand_puppy, the novel One Second After made the rounds in my family and converted a few of them to prepping. And EMP or a Carrington Event (same thing - one naturally and one artificially induced) would kill most of our population and knock us back to the 1800s. Solar panels would fry; we'd be left with steam-age technology. And lots of hungry, desperate people. I much prefer a nice, slow stairstep down but even without an EMP or Carrington Event, a plague or financial collapse or other doom-and-gloom scenarios could cause nearly instanteneous collapse. We simply have to live one day and a time and angle our lives toward surviving whatever life throws at us. It's all anyone can do, anyhow.

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Reversals y mas

Hey everyone,

A quick correction of a figure I'm seeing mis-stated across the channels:
The solar cycle is typically 11 years. During this time, solar activity rises gradually over ~7 years to a solar Maximum, and then rapidly declines over the course of ~4 years to a solar minima. 

I say typically because there is evidence that both the incline to maxima and decline to minima are not regulated by human scheduling, and there is some contention regarding exactly when our maxima ended and how long the decline (and subquently, the incline) actually was.

The process of polar reversal is a 22-year cycle with magnetic reversals at 11-year intervals. 
I've noted this information being mixed up on a couple articles over the last few days, so, this is how I learned it. There might be a more contemporary understanding.

As to the devastating impacts of CME's, guys - don't get too wrapped up in the PopSci stuff. There's some great literature out there and "Lights Out" was a good read (I remember when the guy was actually writing it in chapters and posting it to a forum...) but it's not even close to realistic. 

First of all, there have been *no* indicated reports of vehicles being rendered inoperable by Solar CMEs.
All the damage that's occurred has been to large scale, 'infrastructural' grade equipment, and mainly transformers. Another thing to consider is that the magnetic pulse that eeks its way through the magnetosphere (which keeps us safe from CMEs) will be heavily influenced by latitutde. The closer poleward you are, the more likely you are to be impacted. 
There is also latent geomagnitism to consider, but that's way outside my area of experience. 

Suffice to say, things would be drastically different, but mainly because our ability to produce (what for westerners) modern necessities or (for the 'emerging' world) are convenience. A Carrington class CME would shut down post industrial society, and the 'lead time' to replace that equipment would be measured in years... so it will be quite a long time before the infrastructure becomes tenable and reliable again. 

I started looking for some supporting evidence for this and stumbled upon this Here. I'm certain most, if not all, readers will find it far more insightful and compelling than my ramblings =)

Cheers,

Aaron
 

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Grease cars.

Nice Aggrivated. My neighbors converts Merc. deisels to grease. He's got a fleet of them. I haven't bought one yet because my footprint is small in my travels. You are so right in regard to the 500k and more. You should be able to get upwards of 40-45 mpg if you filter the grease. You can build and install your own heat exchanger for winter use. We co-own a MF deisel backhoe as well. Deisel conversion is the way to go if you have access to grease. We also use vegetable oil to pave parts of our private road. Instead of blacktop, we call it greentop.

Peace!

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lld3j
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Lab was also brought to it's knees

Sand puppy,

I do remember that weird period earlier this summer!!!!

I also noticed a few weeks back that the internet connection at the lab was glitchy......our flow cytometry analysis is dependent on the internet connection to run the analysis program.  Ordering lab consummables (also dependent on an internet connection to the vendor) was offline as well.  

lld3j

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Adam Taggart
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Posts: 2331
The sun just released 2 CMEs towards Earth

From Spaceweather.com

POLAR STORM WARNING: Two CMEs are heading for Earth. The plasma clouds were expelled from the sun on August 20-21 by a pair of erupting magnetic filaments. NOAA forecasters expect the CMEs to arrive on August 23-24, possibly sparking geomagnetic storms around the poles. Aurora alerts: textvoice.

And more here at BusinessInsider.

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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Where would you put this thing?

On a hazard matrix.

Adam Taggart's picture
Adam Taggart
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3 solar flares + 1 CME this week

From the International Business Times:

Solar Maximum: Three Solar Flares And A Coronal Mass Ejection As The Sun Reaches Peak Solar Activity

NASA’s Solar Dynamics ObservatorySDO, has been quite busy this week. After a look at the sun’s “canyon of fire,” recent solar activity suggests the sun is getting close to the “solar maximum” phase. During the normal 11-year solar cycle, the sun sees a spike in activity and this week there were three solar flares, including two “X-class” solar flares in one day, as well as a coronal mass ejection, CME, associated with a solar flare that occurred earlier in the week.
 
On Oct. 25, NASA’s SDO observed two “X-class” solar flares, the highest intensity, in a span of seven hours. According to NASA, an X2 solar flare is double the intensity of an X1 flare and an X3 is triple the intensity of an X1. The largest solar flare ever observed was an X45 in November 2003. The first solar flare, an X1.7 class solar flare, peaked at 4:01 a.m. EDT and that event caused a temporary radio blackout and disrupted some low-frequency navigation signals. The second solar flare, an X2.1, peaked at 11:03 a.m. EDT.

Earlier in the week a medium-strength solar flare, an M9.4 class, erupted from the sun and a fast-moving CME was associated with the event, reports NASA. A CME shoots out billions of tons of solar particles into space. These particles cannot penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and pose no threat to humans but can affect satellites, power grids and communications systems.

On Friday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s, NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center reported an R3 (strong) radio blackout that was associated with the first solar flare on Friday and was monitoring for potential geomagnetic storming, associated with the CME from earlier in the week. According to NOAA, “Forecasters expect impacts from the first of the CMEs in about 72 hours, but things can change given the volatile nature of the three active centers on the solar disk. Possible G1 (Minor) Geomagnetic Storm levels are forecast.”

Here's a video from NASA projecting the likely path of the CME:

ao's picture
ao
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improvise, adapt, overcome

Between flares and CMEs, global nuclear contamination, supervolcanoes, pole shifts, celestial body impacts, Planet Nibiru, and sociopathic/satanic/alien take-over, global warming seems disarmingly benign.  We're like crabgrass, kudzu, coachroaches, and rats though.  I don't see us going away.  In a pinch, there should always be a few oligarchs to eat.  

Far-Side.jpg

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