Danger from Space: Bombardment by Lethal Radiation

Technological vulnerability calls for better planning, safeguards
October 7, 2019 Updated: October 7, 2019

Earth is constantly bombarded by lethal radiation from the sun and outer space. Although we are fortunately shielded by our atmosphere and planetary magnetic field, a major radiation storm would cause catastrophic effects on the technologies we rely on every day.

Looking at the sun in particular, as it produces its constant output of energy, due to energy buildup and the fluctuation of its magnetic fields, sometimes a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME) will occur, emitting radiation that could hit Earth.

Solar flares and CMEs are two different things, although they are caused by the same solar conditions and sometimes happen coincidentally. Solar flares, the more common of the two, can give us a more intense show of both the aurora borealis (northern lights) and the aurora australis (southern lights). We are mostly protected from their radiation, since much of it is absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere.

When a CME hits our planet, it intensifies the aurora lights as well. However, if it has enough mass behind it, it can actually bend Earth’s magnetic field, flattening it on the side facing the sun while pushing the night-side field out further into space, all the while discharging electrical current into Earth and anything between space and Earth’s core.

An aurora borealis light display in the southern part of Norway on the late night of Feb. 28, 2019. (HEIKO JUNGE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the days before electronic technology, we likely wouldn’t have noticed a CME as anything more than very bright auroras that reach further south than usual. In fact, chemical analysis of our polar ice layers as well as geologic deposits has allowed us to identify evidence that points to enormous solar flares and CMEs in our pre-technology past. We have even been able to correlate this physical evidence to written accounts of observations by ancient writers.

In more recent times, since we’ve begun using technology that can be damaged by these events, we’ve experienced a number of disturbing space storm phenomena. In 1859, there was the well-known Carrington Event, the first time a solar flare was witnessed by an astronomer. It also hit Earth and caused damage to our primitive electrical grid as well as to the global telegraph network covering Europe and North America.

Some operators were shocked by the excess electricity in their equipment, and it was noted that some equipment and lines caught fire. Some operators even reported that they were able to use the telegraph equipment for a period of time afterward without having their power equipment attached, due to the electrical charge that was built up in the lines and equipment.

The Carrington Event was the largest CME to have hit us in recent times. However, astronomers have observed two solar events that missed Earth but were measured to have been even larger or deemed at least as strong, one in 2003 and another in 2012 respectively. Those would just be events that happened on the side of the sun facing us, as we can’t observe the other side currently.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare, a powerful burst of radiation, as seen in the bright flash on the right side, on Sept. 10, 2017. The harmful radiation cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, but when intense enough, it can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. (NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

More recently than the Carrington Event, several other smaller events have wreaked havoc among human-made technology. In 1972, a solar flare triggered the destruction of sea mines in Vietnam, laid by the American military to protect their withdrawal. In 1989, the Quebec power grid was overloaded and caused a blackout, which lasted 11 hours. Neither of these events was anywhere near as large as the 1859 event.

Our sun has a cycle of increasing and decreasing activity that lasts approximately 11 years, on average, while typically ranging from 9 to 16 years. Solar flares and CMEs are more prevalent during the solar maximum, when the sun is more active in the cycle. We are currently in a solar minimum, with the new solar cycle expected to begin by the end of 2019 or early 2020. Some scientists believe that the new cycle has already begun this year. The current forecast is that we should reach maximum between 2023 and 2026.

Impact Scenarios

All of this leads us to the crux of the situation. In 2014, a physicist named Pete Riley calculated that there was a 12 percent chance of Earth being hit by a Carrington-level (or higher) CME within the next 10 years. Not all scientists agree with his calculations; however, just two years earlier, in 2012, a CME of at least the power of the 1859 storm passed through Earth’s orbit, missing by just one week.

The results of such an impact could be devastating to our modern, technologically enhanced, lives. Imagine, if you will, all electrical power grids across the globe being overloaded. Massive transformers destroyed, satellites disabled, and even some electronics damaged are all possible effects of a large enough CME.

It’s estimated that if a Carrington-level CME were to strike us without any preparations being taken, our power grid in North America alone could sustain $2 trillion worth of damage and take years to be fully brought back into operation. Equivalent damages could occur across the globe.

Since the 1989 blackout in Quebec, which was caused by a sizeable solar flare (though it was much smaller than the 1859 Carrington event), power companies have made some efforts to better prepare their grids. They are better able to handle smaller and localized interruptions than they were before. However, currently our only solution to a major solar storm would be to disconnect all transformers, taking down our power grid ourselves, and hoping that not too much is damaged in the meantime.

Some of our newer satellites have been protected against such surges, although most that are currently in orbit have not been. This could leave us with major communications gaps until we are able to restore these satellites.

In the case of a Carrington-level event hitting us, the minimum impact would see satellites left out of control until they could be brought back online, our entire power grid down for several hours, a complete radio blackout due to the interference, and maybe even some electronics equipment damaged.

In a worst-case scenario, our power grid could be down for months and possibly even take several years to be fully restored, with many of our satellites disabled, complete radio blackouts for days, and severe disruption to electronic systems.

Would one or more nations take this opportunity to launch a pre-emptive strike against their rivals? It’s not impossible that wars could even be triggered by such chaos.

Disaster Prevention

What can we do to prevent this disaster? Many organizations have been taking precautions. Power companies have implemented better safeguards in the wake of the 1989 Quebec blackout. NASA has observatories trained on the sun, studying it, which will also give us notice of a storm headed our way. Continuing to harden new satellites against such surges and developing contingency plans on how to reactivate or dispose of disabled satellites quickly would help protect our orbital space.

Another defence is to maintain a backup communications network that would allow emergency agencies in all countries to work together and help us recover as quickly as possible. This might be instrumental in reducing the recovery time and, perhaps, in heading off any misunderstandings that might end in wars erupting.

Eamonn Brosnan is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.