How Scared Should I Be?

How Scared Should I Be of Solar Storms?

The more we rely on technology, the more vulnerable we are to the sun's unpredictable wrath.

by Mike Pearl
Dec 2 2015, 6:15pm

Image Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Note: In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of everything under the sun. We hope it'll help you to more wisely allocate natural resources: your fear.

The little blurb above all these columns says I rate the scariness of "everything under the sun," but in retrospect, the sun is pretty scary in its own right. I already know it was worshipped as a god by pretty much every early human culture, probably because it's an all-powerful, benevolent, and sometimes vengeful ball of fire. It's bigger than I can possibly wrap my earthbound brain around, its core is almost exactly 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and if it ever switched off, we would all have 8 1/2 minutes to kiss our asses goodbye.

To make matters worse, the sun is also the scariest kind of god—the unpredictable kind.

Solar storms are the sun's way of reminding us not to get too comfortable. The sun's just chugging along like normal, then suddenly it belches out a blast of energy the same intensity as 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. Expressed in Hiroshima A-bombs, that's about nine trillion of them—in other words, a really big blast.

While most of that energy can't reach us on the Earth's crust, it can screw up our gadgets, some of which are now essential for our everyday lives. In the case of a severe storm, we'll have about 12 hours of advanced notice to batten down the hatches, and that's good news because in 1989, an unexpected solar storm plunged all of Quebec into darkness.

Humanity is only beginning to figure out when to brace for impact though. Last year when scientists told us to expect solar storms on Earth, the storms hit Mars instead. Even in 2015, we know a fair amount about what's going on inside the sun, but we can't necessarily link it to what happens on Earth. It's mildly unsettling to know there's one more thing out there that can randomly impact my day. But how bad could it really be?

"I don't want to scare people," said Antti Pulkkinen, a heliophysicist who monitors and studies space weather—that's what they call it—at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where he leads a group that provides weather information relevant to NASA space missions. Solar weather, he told me, "has a real impact that needs to be considered and understood."

Pulkkinen explained that turbulence within the sun causes what he called "complex structures in terms of a solar magnetic field." Some of that complexity shows up in what we call sunspots, which are dense pockets of magnetic activity that appear during the more active periods in the sun's 11-year activity cycle. Sunspots appear to result what Pulkkinen calls the "1-2-3 punch" of a solar storm. And each punch comes with its own effects on us Earthlings.

"The first punch is the flare—the release of electromagnetic radiation," Pulkkinen said. "That release can actually alter [Earth's] upper atmospheric composition, and that can lead to changes in radio wave propagation, and change how, for example, GPS signals go through the upper atmosphere."

These aren't the kinds of GPS errors that make you turn down the wrong street when Google Maps fucks up. You're only likely to encounter a problem when you're doing serious precision work, for instance, piloting a passenger jet. "If you're flying an aircraft and you're using GPS service to get your position, when you have these kinds of storms, you may actually have some error bars in your location," Pulkkinen told me, five days before I'm about to get on a plane, I should note.

If GPS fails, he said, "they have to fall back on secondary position services. This can definitely affect airline operations, and any other type of activity that requires high precision for the position."

Solar flares can also hinder radio communications. Since the wifi I'm using right now uses a type of radio to transmit signals, I asked if a flare could knock out my internet connection. It probably couldn't he said. When Pulkkinen said "radio," he meant "the kinds military operators use that broadcast radio waves through the air, or use the upper atmosphere to bounce the waves." The military shoots radio signals into the upper atmosphere—sometimes for mysterious reasons—but apart from the possible national security implications if those signals failed, that doesn't really affect my everyday life.

The second punch is particle radiation—as opposed to the more benign electromagnetic radiation from punch number one. But even if I were sunbathing naked during the biggest solar storm of all time, I probably wouldn't absorb any of it. "You would be completely safe," Pulkkinen said. "Earth has a thick atmosphere and a magnetic field, and those two are really good shields from the radiation."

But that's not to say humans will never be impacted by sudden radiation storms from the sun—they just have to be in space. And as much as I'd love to take a trip to the ionosphere with Elon Musk, I'd have to get pretty far into space to have my health jeopardized by blasts of radiation—even the International Space Station is too close to the Earth to be affected.

"As we move forward and go to deep space missions—asteroid capture, or maybe Mars missions at some point in time—that's when these fast-moving particles become an issue that really needs to be addressed," Pulkkinen said.

It's worth pausing here to note that the radiation that comes from solar storms would have been a problem for Matt Damon's character in The Martian, since Mars' atmosphere is much thinner than the Earth's and the planet doesn't have a magnetic field. But according to Pulkkinen"it's the transit from the Earth to Mars, and from Mars to Earth that is the high-risk part of the mission." He said NASA's future plans for a spaceship that goes to Mars include a kind of pop-up radiation panic room, where astronauts can hide in order to prevent themselves from getting horrible, sun-induced cancer.

Blackouts, like the one in Quebec in 1989, are caused by the third punch, known as coronal mass ejections.Those are the actual particles fired at super-high speeds toward Earth, forming what Pulkkinen called "magnetic storms." In addition to the Quebec incident, Pulkkinen said, "there was actually a transformer in Salem, New Jersey, that got damaged by the extra heating during a magnetic storm."

Magnetic storms can also move low Earth orbit satellites around. "It can actually lift the atmosphere a little bit," Pulkkinen said, which can cause jitters and lost connections. Low Earth orbit satellites include the ones that take satellite photos, and unless these messed-up satellites photograph me pooping, I'm not too worried about this effect.

But storms don't always happen during the sun's peak activity periods, which makes predicting them precisely even more difficult. "We do have space weather during solar minimums, so the storms can take place at any part of the solar cycle," Pulkkinen said. "It's just more likely from a statistical standpoint that they'll take place around solar maximum conditions."

So when billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer warned investors that the economic effects of 2014's solar storms—the ones that never materialized—might impact their pocketbooks, he may have been working from bad intel.

"There have been studies where people have correlated solar activity with all kinds of phenomena, whether it's birth rates, death rates, or economic fluctuations," Pulkkinen said. "Maybe there is something to it, but until we understand the causal connection, we should be really careful jumping to further conclusions."

While the idea of a blackout or a plane going off course makes me uncomfortable, it's not like solar storms are likely to cause some kind of global catastrophe. For the time being, the odds of my personal safety being jeopardized seem astronomical. A lost signal here and there seems like the likeliest horror I might ever endure as a result of the sun's wrath.

"If you look at the historical events, these electric power issues are one of the most significant impacts we've experienced already," Pulkkinen said. But he didn't let Earth completely off the hook:

"I think as our technology advances and we explore new worlds, it's likely that we'll be more and more exposed to space weather," he said. "Space weather will be a growing dimension of our endeavors as a species."

But here in 2015, I can't seem to get scared.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Solar Storms?

1/5: IDGAF

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The Sun
solar storms
Antti Pulkkinen
Goddard Space Flight Center