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Are We Prepared for a Super Solar Flare Threat?

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It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, but the Sun erupted on Tuesday evening, releasing a torrent of charged particles that could have many implications on our infrastructure.

According to NASA, the first of the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) released from solar flares is travelling faster than 1300 miles per second.

What is interesting is that it was only last month when senior MPs released a report on how critical national technologies and infrastructure are vulnerable to the effects of nuclear weapons exploded at altitude, and even to severe space weather.

In the report entitled, Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP) the Defence Select Committee said that, "there must be a clear line of responsibility within the MoD; an appearance is given that the MoD is unwilling to take these threats seriously."

Significantly, it is stated in the report that the likelihood of a severe space weather event is assessed to be moderate to high over the next five years, with the potential to cause damage to electrically conducting systems such as power grids, pipelines and signalling circuits. Little did they know that it would come so soon. Even if it is not an extreme event this time, it demonstrates our lack of preparedness.

Chair of the Committee James Arbuthnot MP said, "space weather is a global threat and may affect some regions and countries simultaneously." He said that the government appears complacent on the threat and added, "it is time that the government began to approach this matter with the seriousness it deserves."

The report recommends that the UK's electrical grid and infrastructure is made as resilient as possible, and is carried out in a matter of urgency as, "in the event of severe space weather, even hardened satellite technology might be at risk of degradation."

The potential for a space weather event has always been prevalent, but the damage and vulnerability to space weather is likely to be exacerbated due to technological advances: microchips have become smaller and more advanced, and this is a particular hazard for satellites and our GPS systems, which are exposed to the greatest effects of space weather.

But it's not just galactic storms that can cause damage on an astronomic level. Interestingly, with regards to a deliberate attack, the report singles out Iran as potentially posing 'a realistic threat in the future', explaining that a single High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) weapon detonated 25-500 miles above the Earth could create an EMP. Although such HEMP bursts would not be identical to those of severe space weather, it could be faster and more intense, potentially making it more destructive. The report also explains that it is possible to build non-nuclear devices which can disrupt electronic systems, though so far only over a limited area.

According to the US National Research Council, the wider societal and economic costs of severe a geomagnetic storm occurring today would be $1-2 tn.

The National Grid has admitted that in the event of an extremely severe storm, long-term blackouts could be a possibility. In the extreme event that all transformers at the node are damaged by geomagnetically induced currents (GICs), this could result in local areas being disconnected, with estimates that, "the probability there would be a disconnection event is 62% for England and Wales and 91% for GB as a whole."

The most powerful solar superstorm in recorded history was the 1859 Carrington event, observed by Richard Christopher Carrington, and he recorded how white-light solar flares - magnetic explosions on the sun - caused a coronal mass ejection (CME) to travel directly toward earth. According to NASA, skies all over the planet erupted in red, green and purple auroras and telegraph systems disconnected. Spark discharges shocked the telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire.

In July 1962 the United States conducted an experiment, detonating a 1.4 megaton nuclear weapon (Starfish Prime) 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean, around 900 miles from Hawaii. As a result, the EMP caused damage to electrical equipment in Hawaii: knocking out streetlights and setting off fires.

No one has yet determined what the exact impact of such an event would be. But what is certainly clear is that there has not been much preparation or discussion about the threat of Electro Magnetic Pulses from solar superstorms, despite being warned by scientists about the imminent event. Instead, much more attention has been paid to the risk of a deliberate attack from 'Rogue States' - that don't even have nukes yet.

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