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Why we’re five years overdue for a damaging solar super-storm

By Matin Durrani

The cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital formats, looks at the Sun – and in particular, at the consequences here on Earth of a “solar super-storm”. As I point out in the video above, these violent events can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field – potentially inducing damaging electrical currents in power lines, knocking out satellites and disrupting telecommunications.

One particularly strong solar super-storm occured back in 1859 in what is known as the “Carrington event”, so named after the English astronomer who spotted a solar flare that accompanied it. The world in the mid-19th century was technologically a relatively unsophisticated place and the consequences were pretty benign. But should a storm of similiar strength occur today, the impact could be devastating to our way of life.

The feature has been written  by Ashley Dale from the University of Bristol, who last year took part in a gathering of space experts to examine and report on the potential consequences of a solar super-storm here on Earth. I don’t want to cause alarm, but as Dale points out, the Earth is, on average, in the path of Carrington-level events every 150 years – which means we are five years overdue.

If you’re a member of the Institute of Physics (IOP), you can enjoy immediate access to the new issue via the digital edition of the magazine on desktop via or via the Physics World app, available from the App Store. (Please note that the new Android version from Google Play is not ready yet but will be available soon.) If you’re not yet in the IOP, you can join as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year to get a full year’s access to Physics World both online and through the apps.

For the record, here’s a run-down of the highlights of the August issue.

• The power and pitfalls of science advice – Scientists are providing ever more advice to governments, but in doing so risk falling foul of the political process. Edwin Cartlidge looks ahead to a meeting designed to help them out.

• Gardening in space – A blog written by a vegetable on the International Space Station gets Robert P Crease thinking about the purpose of laboratories.

• Tackling energy head on – Energy can be a tricky topic to teach students, but Rachel Scherr describes developing an “Energy Theater” to help.

• What if a solar super-storm hit? – Super-storms on the surface of the Sun are more than just an interesting oddity of astrophysics. As Ashley Dale explains, they can occur at any time and – if sufficiently strong – could cripple our modern way of life here on Earth.

• When light listens to your every step – A novel sound-detection technique based on fibre-optic and laser technologies can be used to detect intruders, check the flow in pipelines and monitor undersea wildlife, reports Katia Moskvitch.

• Aping our ancestors – Roland Ennos argues that the abilities of the great apes to cope in the dangerous mechanical environment of the forest canopy are part of the human species’ intellectual inheritance and are intimately connected with our abilities as physicists.

• Electricity, eels and evolution – Brian Rasnow reviews Spark from the Deep: How Shocking Experiments with Strongly Electric Fish Powered Scientific Discovery by William J Turkel.

• Scientific booms and busts – Margaret Harris reviews Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent by Michael S Teitelbaum.

• Putting the “science” in science fiction – Costas Efthimiou reviews Wizards, Aliens and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction by Charles L Adler.

• A concrete foundation – The construction industry may not seem like a logical home for a physicist, but Luke Pinkerton believes that a degree in physics has been a big asset in his civil engineering career.

• Once a physicist – How Chris Loxton started his own winery, Loxton Cellars, in California after 10 years in physics research.

• Lateral Thoughts: Aerodynamically challenged – John Evans on the difficulties of trying to run faster.

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  1. Trackback: Physics in the News | Scientific Association for the Study of Time in Physics and Cosmology

  2. Trackback: A bigger worry than ‘global warming’ and more damaging – a Carrington class solar event | Watts Up With That?

  3. Trackback: Blowout week 31 | Energy Matters

  4. It’s going to be even worse than we think. The earth is currently in the process of flipping its magnetic field. (North will become South) This means that the field is decreasing in strength and becoming “mottled” in appearance. In the near future, there may be places on the earth that are practically unprotected by a magnetic field. If there is a major CME event at this time, the effects will be so much stronger. Weak geomagnetic field + CME = very bad. // Over-population, just-in-time manufacturing, all basic life-support infrastructures dependent upon electrical systems, nuclear plants that are going to pop when the grid goes down and their cooling eventually system fail. My god: it is going to be so horrendous.

  5. KJMClark

    Scientific American article on a recent study: – the previous poster is right that the field is changing, and currently weakening over the western hemisphere. Don’t know what effect that would have in a solar storm.

    The part I worry about is the nuclear reactors. We discovered with Fukushima that when the grid fails, the nuclear plants have to shut down. But they still have to circulate cooling water, and their plan for power to run the pumps was – the power grid. Hopefully our plant operators have learned that they need lots of backup diesel generation capacity. But if the grid is down for months? And there’s no power to pump diesel?

  6. Trackback: Super tempesta solare: arriverà avvertono gli scienziati | 5 MINUTI PER L'AMBIENTE

  7. Alfred Bhulai

    But if the grid is down for months? And there’s no power to pump diesel?

    It can require only a small amount of electricity from the diesel powered generator to pump the diesel.

  8. Trackback: Earth Dodged a Bullet: The Solar Superstorm Nobody Told You About | BabyFox


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