Blackout causing, satellite disabling super solar storms far greater risk than previously thought

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 7:00am

The chance of our planet being hit a super solar storm could be greater than we thought, according to a new international study led by Chinese astronomers.

The researchers investigated two major geomagnetic storms this year and found they were likely "siblings" of the largest solar storm recorded in history.

On July 23, 2012, the sun produced a series of coronal mass ejections, the most powerful variety of solar flares, unprecedented in scale and intensity.

Fortunately for us, the flares missed the earth by an incredibly slim margin, saving the planet from the worst blackout in the modern era, with electric grids burned out, satellites disabled and the failure of the majority of consumer gadgets, from car GPS to smartphones.

Such a disaster could cripple infrastructure worldwide and cause trillions of US dollars in damages to the global economy.

Despite the near miss, scientists said there was no reason for panic, as super solar storms were believed to be rare events.

A research team of astronomers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California Berkeley found that a number of conditions must be met "perfectly" for a super storm of the level of the 2012 event to form.

However, in a new paper in the Astrophysical Journal, the same team admitted that they may have greatly underestimated the risk.

"The 'perfect storm' scenario may not be as rare as the phrase implies," they wrote.

The scientists concern was based on two geomagnetic storms that hit the earth on March 17 and June 22 this year, the largest recorded since 2006. During the storms, aurora could be spotted by people as far away from the poles as Perth in Australia or San Jose in the United States. There were also temporary disruptions to radio communications over the Pacific.

While the magnitude of these solar events was nowhere near the level of the society-changing disaster that would have taken place had the 2012 storm hit the planet, researchers – led by Liu Ying at the Chinese National Space Science Centre – said they contained bad news nonetheless.

While previous studies suggested the storms were caused by one-off coronal mass ejections, Liu's team discovered a more sophisticated process of "combo hits" may be taking place, similar to the 2012 event.

The March storm resulted from the combined effects of two successive ejections, with a high-speed stream giving them a push from behind.

That picture is identical to the "perfect" conditions that generation the 2012 super storm, previously thought to be an incredibly rare occurrence.

The researchers warned that the chance of Earth being hit by a similarly severe super solar storm was something people "should worry about, because complex events [such as the March storm] are common".