Solar storm could cause trillions of damage to Earth – Bill Jamieson

Gas-filled loops appear out of the Sun's surface after a major flare in 2003 (Picture: Nasa via Getty)
Gas-filled loops appear out of the Sun's surface after a major flare in 2003 (Picture: Nasa via Getty)
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Ultima Thule shows how much we need the Sun’s warmth, but we might be a bit too close for comfort with an estimated 12 per cent chance of a major solar storm between 2012 and 2022, writes Bill Jamieson.

Chaos, risk, uncertainty: how these words have come to define our world. But such definitions shrink before the chaos and uncertainty of the planetary sort. The New Year opened with radio signals travelling some four billion miles from the New Horizons probe after its flyby of Ultima Thule in the rock-strewn extremities of the galaxy.

It is the most distant ever exploration of an object in our solar system, making the moon-walks and the Mars probes little more than trips to Tesco in comparison. To reach this point is an astonishing milestone by any reckoning.

Time was when Ultima Thule in classical and medieval literature referred to any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world”. Modern interpretations of the ancient Greek and Roman place name came to include Orkney and Shetland – which may now have a fair claim against Nasa for cultural appropriation.

I followed the news coverage of the New Horizons signals with a mixture of awe and disappointment: how could a tiny sub-zero lump of rock, about as enticing in appearance as an unflushed turd, come to be worth the attention of a space probe?

Ultima is located in the Kuiper belt – something else few of us knew – the band of icy rubble that orbits the Sun more than two billion kilometres further out than the eighth of the classical planets, Neptune, and 1.5 billion kilometres beyond even the dwarf planet Pluto. On one theory, the early solar system was quite a rowdy neighbourhood – with Jupiter and Saturn first migrating towards the Sun, then moving back out to their current position. This process would have scattered some early bodies that formed amongst the gas giants into the outer reaches of the solar system.

It has taken all of six hours and eight minutes for signals to traverse the great expanse of space from Ultima, putting our own journeys on Earth into perspective. It reminded me of a horrific journey I once made to Fort Kinnaird – it seemed at least as long, signs of human life ever more remote and the destination barely more attractive. It was like arriving at an ice block, a crater-encrusted Uranus without the rings and moons. I am sure it has improved since, but I found it an alien and inhospitable place where tree life was impossible. When I waited for my wife to rescue me by car, it did rather feel like six hours and eight minutes and with no recognisable shelter from the blasting solar winds.

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My longest journeys now are on the bus along the A84 from Lochearnhead to Callander, a beautiful journey, one in which time and distance scarcely matter. However, by the time you reach the Dreadnought Hotel, it’s not so much Ultima Thule, more Penultimata Thule by the time you climb to the public lavatories. I am sure the latest achievement by Nasa will come to be regarded, rather like Fort Kinnaird, as a stepping stone to further exploration of the extremities of the galaxy. Bear in mind that the two 1970s Voyager missions have both now left the heliosphere – Voyager 2 only recently did it, in November, at a distance of 18 billion kilometres from the Sun.

It is said that there are hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members like Ultima, and their frigid state is likely to yield more clues to the formation conditions of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. The Sun is so dim in this region that temperatures are down near 30-40 degrees above absolute zero. Ultima is in such a deep freeze that it is probably perfectly preserved in the state in which it formed.

This exploration might encourage us to think of the Earth and our solar system generally as a static space; that the further we explore, the more frozen and lifeless it becomes. In all this vastness, our planet is but a tiny bubble in the cosmos, as if cocooned in a glass paperweight.

But we are discovering how dynamic and vast space is, and the Earth’s survival in it something of a miracle. How lucky we are to be in such a hospitable place, with oceans and mountains, forests and pastureland, rivers and lochs, the warm beams of the Sun rising to caress all the plants and wildlife and to play upon our upturned faces. How blessed and fortunate we are not to wake up on Ultima Thule.

But if chronic permafrost is a fate to be avoided, consider our vulnerability, being so near to the Sun, of galactic phenomena of another sort: the events of coronal mass ejection (CMEs). These occur when the solar atmosphere suddenly and violently releases bubbles of gas and magnetic fields. They can contain a billion tons of matter accelerated to several million miles per hour in a spectacular explosion.

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It can’t happen here? Think again. There is a long and scary history of CMEs, with recent instances that have interfered with telecoms, satellite communication and power stations. Fast CMEs drive interplanetary shocks in the solar wind and cause the most intense geomagnetic storms – disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere that can have a significant impact on both ground- and space-based technological systems.

The largest recorded geomagnetic perturbation, resulting presumably from a CME, coincided with the first-observed solar flare in September 1859. The resulting solar storm is now referred to as the Carrington Event after the English astronomer.

Newer observations were recorded in annual summaries by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific between 1953 and 1960. In March 1989, a CME occurred and a severe geomagnetic storm struck the Earth causing power failures in Quebec and short-wave radio interference. In July 2012, a massive, and potentially damaging solar superstorm occurred but missed Earth. We got lucky: such an event striking the Western hemisphere could cost the global economy $2 trillion.

According to a report published in 2012 by physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc, the chance of Earth being hit by a Carrington-class storm between 2012 and 2022 is 12 per cent. There are worse odds. I would reckon 12 per cent is a higher probability than Theresa May getting her Withdrawal Bill through the House of Commons.

Trapped between the ice of Ultima Thule and the sudden, unpredictable flares of a Coronal Mass Ejection: look up to Heaven today, and hope at least some of our stars this year turn out to be lucky.