Scientist Concern, Massive solar flare storm may occur before warning system is complete

On July 14, 2012, The Daily Reporter published an article predicting a weekend of powerful sun storms. Most scientist accurately predicted that no one on earth would be affected by the celestial activity. “This isn’t the mother of all anything,” said forecaster Joe Kunches at the government’s Space Weather Prediction Center in boulder, Colorado. “We don’t see any ill effects to any systems.” However, though it was clear that the scientific community saw no reason to sound the alarm, 2013, the year in which the sun’s 11-year cycle of activity will reach its peak is a different matter altogether.

What most scientist fear is damage to our power grids as well as our orbiting satellites. The model of such a prediction is based on the solar flare storm that occurred in 1859. Dr. John P. Millis’ account puts the prediction in perspective. Millis makes clear that “shortly after the Sun reached solar maximum in 1859, the Sun experienced a significant increase in sun spot activity as well as a sequence of intense solar flares. The largest solar flare on record during the maximum was then observed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. The result of the flare was a coronal mass ejection that sent charged particles streaming toward Earth, reaching the atmosphere only 18 hours after the ejection. This is startlingly quick given that the trip normally takes several days.

Once the particles reach the Earth they caused a series of phenomena to occur, the likes of which the Earth has not experienced since. First of all, charged particles are usually captured by the Earth’s magnetic field, and primarily get funneled to the poles. There, they interact with the Earth’s atmosphere creating brilliant colors known as aurorae.

In this case, however, the flux of particles was so high that the magnetic field could not shield the Earth from them all. So instead of aurorae only being created near the poles, they came into existence throughout the Earth. Reports of aurorae were common over the Caribbean, as well as the central United States. At one point the glow in the Rocky Mountains was such that it awoke the sleeping miners, causing them to begin getting prepared for the day, believing that it was in fact dawn.

Another, and perhaps more significant, problem was that the charged particle flux began to reek havoc on electronic systems. Specifically, failure of telegraph systems world wide were reported.”

Dr. Millis further projects that the kind of damage to electronic devices and power grids around the world would take months or, more likely years to repair.

Could you imagine no electricity for years? If you lived in Arizona, Nevada, or even Colorado or Utah, it’s not difficult to imagine the peril people would experience.

Is this kind of solar flare attack actually possible? It is not only possible it is quite probable to occur. In fact, recently, a group of scientists have put the world on alert that a massive solar flare could happen within the next two years that could harm power grids, communications, and satellites around the world. The scientists say that the risk of a massive flare that could harm systems on the earth increase as the sun reaches the peak of its 10-year activity cycle. The scientists say “governments are taking it very seriously.”

According to scientist Mike Hapgood, who specializes in space weather at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, solar storms are more commonly being placed on national risk registers used for disaster planning along with events such as tsunamis and volcanic eruption. Hapgood warns that while solar flares are rare, when they happen, consequences on earth could be catastrophic. Magnetically-charged plasma thrown from the surface of the sun can have a significant impact on earth.

The chance of a massive solar storm is about 12% for every decade. According to the scientists, the last major solar storm was over 150 years ago (as I mentioned 1859), and the odds say that a massive solar storm occurs approximately once in every 100 years. The fear is that these massive solar storms could melt transformers within national power grids, destroy or damage satellites, knockout radio communications, and more.

With all this seemingly bad news, you have to wonder is there any good news that would reverse solar flare fears. The answer is yes. While scientist are quite sure we will experience a significant solar flare event with in the next couple of years, researchers may have discovered a new method to predict solar flares more than a day before they occur, providing advance warning to help protect satellites, power grids and astronauts from potentially dangerous radiation.

The system works by measuring differences in gamma radiation emitted when atoms in radioactive elements “decay,” or lose energy. This rate of decay is widely believed to be constant, but recent findings challenge that long-accepted rule.

The new detection technique is based on a hypothesis that radioactive decay rates are influenced by solar activity, possibly streams of subatomic particles called solar neutrinos. This influence can wax and wane due to seasonal changes in the Earth’s distance from the sun and also during solar flares, according to the hypothesis, which is supported with data published in a dozen research papers since it was proposed in 2006, said Ephraim Fischbach, a Purdue University professor of physics.

Fischbach and Jere Jenkins, a nuclear engineer and director of radiation laboratories in the School of Nuclear Engineering, are leading research to study the phenomenon and possibly develop a new warning system. Jenkins, monitoring a detector in his lab in 2006, discovered that the decay rate of a radioactive sample changed slightly beginning 39 hours before a large solar flare.

Since then, researchers have been examining similar variation in decay rates before solar flares, as well as those resulting from Earth’s orbit around the sun and changes in solar rotation and activity. The new findings appeared online last week in the journal Astroparticle Physics.

“It’s the first time the same isotope has been used in two different experiments at two different labs, and it showed basically the same effect,” Fischbach said. The paper was authored by Jenkins and Fischbach; Ohio State University researchers Kevin R. Herminghuysen, Thomas E. Blue, Andrew C. Kauffman and Joseph W. Talnagi; U.S. Air Force researcher Daniel Javorsek; Mayo Clinic researcher Daniel W. Mundy; and Stanford University researcher Peter A. Sturrock.

Data were recorded during routine weekly calibration of an instrument used for radiological safety at Ohio State’s research reactor. Findings showed a clear annual variation in the decay rate of a radioactive isotope called chlorine 36, with the highest rate in January and February and the lowest rate in July and August, over a period from July 2005 to June 2011.

The new observations support previous work by Jenkins and Fischbach to develop a method for predicting solar flares. Advance warning could allow satellite and power grid operators to take steps to minimize impact and astronauts to shield themselves from potentially lethal radiation emitted during solar storms.

The findings agree with data previously collected at the Brookhaven National Laboratory regarding the decay rate of chlorine 36; changes in the decay rate were found to match changes in the Earth-sun distance and Earth’s exposure to different parts of the sun itself, Fischbach said.

Large solar flares may produce a “coronal mass ejection” of highly energetic particles, which can interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, triggering geomagnetic storms that sometimes knock out power. The sun’s activity is expected to peak over the next year or so as part of an 11-year cycle that could bring strong solar storms.

Solar storms can be especially devastating if the flare happens to be aimed at the Earth, hitting the planet directly with powerful charged particles. A huge solar storm, called the Carrington event, hit the Earth in 1859, a time when the only electrical infrastructure consisted of telegraph lines.

“There was so much energy from this solar storm that the telegraph wires were seen glowing and the aurora borealis appeared as far south as Cuba,” Fischbach said. “Because we now have a sophisticated infrastructure of satellites, power grids and all sort of electronic systems, a storm of this magnitude today would be catastrophic. Having a day and a half warning could be really helpful in averting the worst damage.”

Satellites, for example, might be designed so that they could be temporarily shut down and power grids might similarly be safeguarded before the storm arrived.

Researchers have recorded data during 10 solar flares since 2006, seeing the same pattern.
“We have repeatedly seen a precursor signal preceding a solar flare,” Fischbach said. “We think this has predictive value.”

The Purdue experimental setup consists of a radioactive source—manganese 54—and a gamma-radiation detector. As the manganese 54 decays, it turns into chromium 54, emitting a gamma ray, which is recorded by the detector to measure the decay rate.

Purdue has filed a U.S. patent application for the concept.

Research findings show evidence that the phenomenon is influenced by the Earth’s distance from the sun; for example, decay rates are different in January and July, when the Earth is closest and farthest from the sun, respectively.

“When the Earth is farther away, we have fewer solar neutrinos and the decay rate is a little slower,” Jenkins said. “When we are closer, there are more neutrinos, and the decay a little faster.”

Researchers also have recorded both increases and decreases in decay rates during solar storms.

“What this is telling us is that the sun does influence radioactive decay,” Fischbach said.
Neutrinos have the least mass of any known subatomic particle, yet it is plausible that they are somehow affecting the decay rate, he said.

English physicist Ernest Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics, in the 1930s conducted experiments indicating the radioactive decay rate is constant, meaning it cannot be altered by external influences.

“Since neutrinos have essentially no mass or charge, the idea that they could be interacting with anything is foreign to physics,” Jenkins said. “So, we are saying something that doesn’t interact with anything is changing something that can’t be changed. Either neutrinos are affecting decay rate or perhaps an unknown particle is.”

Jenkins discovered the effect by chance in 2006, when he was watching television coverage of astronauts spacewalking at the International Space Station. A solar flare had erupted and was thought to possibly pose a threat to the astronauts. He decided to check his equipment and discovered that a change in decay-rate had preceded the solar flare.

Further research is needed to confirm the findings and to expand the work using more sensitive equipment, he said.

Jenkins and Fischbach have previously collaborated with Peter Sturrock, a professor emeritus of applied physics at Stanford University and an expert on the inner workings of the sun, to examine data collected at Brookhaven on the decay rate of radioactive isotopes silicon-32 and chlorine-36. The team reported in 2010 in Astroparticle Physics that the decay rate for both isotopes varies in a 33-day recurring pattern, which they attribute to the rotation rate of the sun’s core.

The group found evidence of the same annual and 33-day effect in radium-226 data taken at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) in Braunschweig, Germany, and those findings were published in 2011. They also found an additional 154-day recurring pattern in both the Brookhaven and PTB data, published in 2011, which they believe to be solar related and similar to a known solar effect called a Rieger periodicity.

Though we may breathe a little easier as a result of Jenkins, Fishchbach and their colleagues for constructing a viable solar flare prediction method, the notion that further research is needed to confirm their findings is not comforting and in fact creates a large measure of uncertainty.

With all the chicken little, false end of the world predictions, the very real potential damage solar flare can produce on earth suggests a high probability that one day the sky might be falling when we’re least prepared.

Contributor D. Chandler

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