There are a surprisingly large number of published scientific papers and reliable documentation on the impacts of solar phenomena, solar pulses, CMEs and geomagnetic storms, all of which is generically termed ‘space weather’. Most people assume that America has a space weather team, and the NOAA is part of their National Weather Service. But it might surprise many people to know that, since 2014, the UK Met Office has also had its own expert space weather team in place based in their HQ in Exeter, the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC) team.
After thoroughly reviewing the multiple and publicly available publications and sources within the EU and abroad, a consistent pattern and conclusions on the implications of space weather and the effects of a major solar storm emerged, much of which was used in the novel.
So what is space weather? Well, it reaches Earth from outside our atmosphere and most, but not all of it, comes directly from our Sun. Space weather impacts the Earth even though our Sun is 150 million kilometres (93 million miles) away. In fact it’s so far away we usually don’t realise how massive the Sun is, over a hundred times the diameter of the Earth. To put it in perspective, it would take 1.3 million Earth’s to fill it all up.
Much like on Earth, the Sun has its own storms and weather, and the space weather it creates can range from very mild to really bad. So, like on Earth with breezy winds versus a category five hurricane, drizzle versus a major thunderstorm, or slight riverbank erosion versus a mountain mudslide, it can be something we can deal with easily, or that can impact cities or whole communities in a very short space of time.
Virtually everyone has heard of or seen pictures of the Aurora, an example of ‘friendly’ space weather that can be seen in the picture at the top. The Aurora is the glowing ring of fire, with its wonderful waving curtains of colour, which sits centred near the Earth’s magnetic poles. There’s the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, and another ring of fire at the south pole, the Aurora Australis, or southern lights. These glowing rings are caused by energetic particles from the Sun hitting and interacting with the Earth’s own magnetic field, generated by the molten iron core inside the Earth. The Aurora occurs because the Earth sits inside our Sun’s atmosphere. Yes, that’s right, inside it. If you add in the Sun’s own atmosphere, the solar wind and its gravity, it’s hard to appreciate that the Sun’s ‘space weather’ influence extends about ninety times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. That’s five times the distance from the Sun all the way out to beyond Pluto.
15 million degrees Celsius at its core, the Sun provides us with all of the light and energy we need to live, but it is not always a benign life-giver. In fact, unlike the polar Aurorae, most space weather that happens is just not visible to us, which is why most people aren’t aware of its effects, or even when it happens. Without special equipment, telescopes or satellites, we can also only see the part of our Sun that’s in the visible spectrum, the glowing ball that’s so bright you can’t look directly at it. Space weather is about much more than the effects of the Sun’s light, it’s also the influence of lots of other wavelengths too. These wavelengths travel across empty space, and include infra-red that create the Sun’s heat, and the ultraviolet that can give us a tan.
‘Bad’ space weather created by the Sun does indeed occur, and what makes it have such a major potential impact on Earth is that it is huge, incredibly hot and has vast stores of energy. Solar storms can be seen emanating from sunspot groups as solar flares, that most of us have seen in pictures of the Sun. These flares are amazing arches of light and energy emerge that twist far out from the Sun’s surface.
This is where the solar ‘pulse’ comes in, a violent flare energy burst off the sun created by a solar superstorm inside the Sun. Like any big storm on Earth, each flare is different, and is often accompanied by a massive burst of solar material sent out into space, with its own peculiar characteristics. Solar energy bursts are complex and are made up of heat, visible light, ultraviolet light and lots of other bigger and smaller wavelengths, plus high energy particles and radiation, all of which can affect life on Earth. The solar material that leaves the Sun is called a Coronal Mass Ejection, or CME, a mass of seething energy and material with an embedded magnetic field. This CME tears away from the sun at high speed in a tear-drop or light-bulb shape, with the flatter end at the front. The thing is that a big CME ‘bulb’, like the one that caused the 1859 Carrington Event, could fit hundreds of Earth’s inside it. It really is that enormous.
Bad space weather like a major solar pulse can affect most of the Earth’s inhabitants for several days. The worst effects are seen at the poles, and the CME ‘bulb’ of energy can impact the whole globe, and particularly affect the northern hemisphere, where 90% of Earth’s population lives. The good news is that we have the ability to detect the pulses and CMEs ejected from the Sun, using special instruments on Earth, and space satellites that are designed to monitor activity on the Sun.
There are three bits of bad news. One is that we still don’t have very many space satellites studying the Sun, and some of them are pretty old and getting to the end of their useful life too. The second is, even though major solar pulses occur every few years, like hurricanes they are extremely hard to predict, and we can go a decade without one. The third issue is we simply don’t get much time to prepare if a big solar storm hits Earth. If the Sun emits a large solar pulse we have only eight minutes before the first wave of X-rays and energy hits us, as it travels out from the Sun at the speed of light. If the Sun also emits a large CME in our direction, we could have less than a day after we know that it’s coming to prepare society for it, and less than an hour’s warning before we really know how big the effects of the CME are likely to be.
The bulb shaped CME of matter and energy can affect the Earth in a wide number of ways, for several days. In the past, big solar pulses have been shown to damage satellites and electric power infrastructure, and also adversely affect air, road and rail transport systems, TV, radio, communications and GPS navigation for several hours. Whilst severe Earth weather is localised, bad space weather like a major solar CME can affect most of the Earth’s inhabitants for several days. The CME also creates something called Geomagnetic Induced Currents, or GIC, which generates voltages in the Earth’s surface that can damage electronics, power lines, rail and road systems, generators and transformers.
So should we really be concerned about space weather or a big solar pulse, and try to do what we can to prepare for what might happen to society? Or is a big solar pulse so far out of our control it becomes one of those things in life that’s just too big to consider, or worry about?
Well, I’ll leave you to judge for yourself after you’ve read the novel…