Kepler telescope

Flaring up

(Image: Kepler)

8 September 2017

The storms in the Caribbean are rightly getting a lot of attention and are focusing minds on climate change and the effects of global warming.

However, going relatively unnoticed as another incident that, from an ICT perspective, could potentially be even worse than those dreadful hurricanes.

At approximately 12:02 GMT on 6 September, a solar event was detected that has the potential to disrupt communications here on earth.

“A solar flare has the potential to degrade high-frequency radio communications and some low-frequency navigation systems”

A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) event was observed which has the potential to generate a solar flare that could hit earth. This is where the magnetic fields lines of the sun’s internal circulation get twisted and compressed until a mass of plasma and gas is ejected from the sun’s surface.

These events have always taken place periodically and are associated with the sun’s natural cycle. However, in recent years we have been far better able to monitor and track such activity and incidents.

Aurora effect
Mostly such events just result in more spectacular phenomenon such as aurora, but sometimes they can have quite drastic effects.

The solar flares are essentially highly energised and ionised gases that shoot out from the sun and can make their way out in all directions. Sometimes they arrive here on earth and collide with our own magnetic field, and atmosphere, to give those eerie light shows.

But sometimes, as happened in 1989 in Canada, they can be far more energetic and thus cause significant damage. As every school child knows, an electrical conductor moving through a magnetic field produces an electric current. Now, imagine a highly charged atmosphere of ionised particles from the sun passing over satellites, and to the ground for power cables, generators, electric motors, wind turbines, and of course, telecommunications equipment.

The results could be devastating.

Massive outage
In the Canadian event of 1989, Quebec suffered a massive power outage as circuit breakers were tripped in the power grid due to overloads. The damage was extensive and took some weeks to rectify. Further afield, an Australian military unit on UN duties in Namibia reported losing high-frequency radio communications, with damage to equipment.

For the current event, an article on said that the “solar flare has the potential to degrade high-frequency radio communications and some low-frequency navigation systems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Centre. A CME could cause additional impacts, including disrupting satellite communications.”

According to an article from 2016 on Business Insider, we are quite unprepared for the impact of a large CME event in which the solar flare hit earth.

A NASA physicist, Daniel Baker, has said if a particularly massive solar flare from a large CME in 2012 had hit earth, “we would still be picking up the pieces”.

DC protection
While protections for data centres against the likes of solar flares, or even electromagnetic pulses (EMP) from nuclear weapons, the reality is that they are expensive and cumbersome. When the likelihood of such an event is taken into account, it does not make much economic sense.

It is known that the sun goes on a roughly 11-year cycle activity, and its current activity is heading toward a solar minimum, CMEs and their resultant solar flares are hard to predict and can go off in any direction. As such, they rarely hit earth.

However, the reality is that if a large solar flare that was highly energetic hit earth, our technological capability could be highly impacted and set back quite some time.

A sobering thought.



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