Can we protect Earth from space weather?

outer space

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In early September 1859, the Northern Lights could suddenly be seen as far south as the Caribbean. The cause was a geomagnetic solar storm – specifically a coronal mass ejection, now called the Carrington event, after the astronomer who recorded it.

The solar eruption It reached Earth in 17.6 hours, with turbulence lasting about three days. “Contemporary accounts speak of telegraph equipment either not working, operating without powered batteries – thanks to this independent electromagnetic energy source, or simply catching fire,” says Palmroth of the University of Helsinki.

Given our increasing reliance on electronics, if a similar event were to occur today, would the impact be more widespread and long-lasting? “We assume so, but we don’t really know, and that’s what I’m getting at,” adds Palmruth, former chair of the European Union’s Space Advisory Group. “The Historical records They indicate that events of this magnitude can be expected every 100-150 years. I think I’ll see the next one.”

What causes solar storms?

The sun is constantly shooting a stream of charged particles into space, both from fast bursts of high-energy but low-density particles from Solar flaresor more slowly as plasma clouds, which consist of low-energy but high-density particles.

The Earth’s magnetic field deflects these particles to their direction polar regions, which creates the aurora borealis – although the effect extends further. “Even if space is defined as starting about 100 kilometers from Earth, space weather can have effects on Earth,” Palmroth explains.

In 2012, NASA’s STEREO satellite observed a solar flare on the Carrington scale. Fortunately, he missed Earth two days ago. If it had reached the Earth’s magnetosphere, there would likely be significant disruption to communications, energy and transportation networks.

Palmroth sums up: “Such changes in Earth’s magnetic field produce magnetically induced currents (GICs), while solar particles disrupt ionospheric radio signals and increase near-Earth space radiation due to trapped particles.”

Supercharged GICs can create additional direct currents (DC) in power grids, causing them to shut down, as happened in Malmö, Sweden, in 2003.

Solar particles disrupt communication signals by creating a variable density of the ionosphere, which is detrimental to devices that use high-frequency bandwidth, such as radar. This would also make GPS navigation of a phone or car unreliable, and cause the loss of satellite timestamps necessary for financial services and other industries.

Increased near-Earth space radiation will have a direct impact on satellites used for weather, navigation, and Earth observation. Depending on their orbit, materials can be decayed by exposure to radiation or completely destroyed by direct hits from high-energy charged particles traveling at the speed of light.

“But this is educated speculation,” Palmroth warns. “While we have many terrestrial weather monitors, we rely largely on modeling of potential impacts on infrastructure from space weather.”

Space weather forecasting

Thanks to an ERC grant more than 15 years ago, Palmroth created a space environment modeling tool designed to take advantage of then-nonexistent supercomputers. The resulting Vlasiator simulator, recently augmented by the PRESTISSIMO project, maps the location, speed and trajectory of high-energy particles flying through space.

“First of all, people thought I was crazy. Now we have the most accurate in the world space environment Simulations using the largest supercomputers in Europe to visualize phenomena that were not possible before. Because Vlasiator is open source, others are using it, including designing other planets,” Palmroth adds.

Palmroth is now evaluating potential impacts to Earth from space weather, prioritizing two main research questions: how GICs might affect power grids, and how the flow of particles and energy affects satellites.

Both are difficult to research because they require commercially and politically sensitive information about the configuration of power grids and satellites, so the team is currently working with Finnish data.

“We know that Finland’s power grids can probably hold space climate effects because our converters absorb more developing countries better than most European countries,” Palmroth says. Does this mean that in The worst case scenarioAll over Europe, only Finland keeps its lights on? We do not know “.

Project CARRINGTON is collaborating with the Finnish preparedness community to work to mitigate risks. “For an event on the Carrington scale, the question is: What can you do in 17 hours? You need a plan in place,” Palmruth says.

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