How can humanity hypothetically destroy the sun
Fatal consequences: How a strong solar storm could destroy our everyday lives in 90 seconds
The solar cycle has reached its minimum, but it is a deceptive calm. Because even with low solar activity, strong solar storms can occur. A terrifying study shows how unprepared we are for a geomagnetic storm.
The last time it really crashed on the sun was in September 2017. First, our daytime star hurled a huge amount of electrically charged gases (so-called plasma) into space. A second, hardly less violent eruption followed four days later.
Both times mankind was lucky: the solar storms missed the earth. A hit, on the other hand, could have had catastrophic consequences: the plasma clouds can destroy electrical installations, interrupt radio links, impair air traffic and damage satellites. In extreme cases, our technical civilization threatens to collapse.
As if thrown into space with a whip
Often tens of billions of tons of matter drifted away in such eruptions at speeds of up to seven million kilometers per hour. Solar physicists speak of "coronal mass ejection" (CME for short) because they originate from the solar corona. They arise when large plasma bubbles rise above the surface of the sun. Arcs of twisted magnetic fields that originate deep inside the sun hold the hot gas together. However, they can tear, then the field lines reconnect. The plasma is thrown into space like a whip.
Plasma crushes earth's magnetic field
Until now, mankind got off lightly in such solar storms. It doesn't have to stay that way - on the contrary. Due to the increasing interconnectedness of the world and its dependence on a functioning power supply, civilization is becoming increasingly vulnerable.
A study by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (NAS), which appeared a few years ago, shows the devastation a powerful mass ejection can wreak on the earth.
Geomagnetic storms create auroras
It turns out that a solar super-eruption could bring entire regions to their knees in just 90 seconds, especially at higher latitudes. If the plasma cloud hits the terrestrial magnetic field, it is suddenly compressed, which induces currents in the upper crust of the earth. They couple into long power lines, so that high voltages build up in them and strong currents flow.
As a result, the coils in the high-voltage transformers of the power supply system burn out.
In addition, the plasma particles in the polar regions penetrate deeper into the earth's atmosphere along the magnetic field lines. There they generate northern lights, which can also be seen at low latitudes.
Safe for people on earth, deadly for astronauts
At the same time, cosmic rays reach deeper layers of the air. It can interfere with the electronics in airplanes and air travelers are bombarded with higher doses of radiation. To avoid this, aircraft must avoid the polar routes during strong solar storms.
However, solar storms do not have a direct effect on the human body, because life on the ground is protected by the atmosphere and the earth's magnetic field. For astronauts, however, a space walk can be fatal as this protection is lacking in space.
Whole regions were thrown into the darkness
Earlier solar storms give an inkling of what could happen to mankind. At the end of October 2003, for example, the lights went out for an hour in the southern Swedish city of Malmö as a result of a solar storm. At the same time, the Japanese space agency JAXA lost contact with two of its satellites.
In March 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused a sensation, which paralyzed the power grid in the Canadian province of Quebec and caused chaos because the traffic control systems, the electrical systems of the airports and the district heating supply failed. Six million people had no electricity for nine hours.
An even more violent CME reached Earth in 1921. It generated currents ten times stronger in overhead lines.
But never a more powerful solar storm was registered than in the late summer of 1859. The British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington happened to see the eruption that caused it with the naked eye: he had projected the sun onto a white disk as part of his regular observations.
On earth, high currents shot through telegraph lines, in some places, to the horror of the technicians, they set fire to the paper inserted in the telegraph. Northern lights shimmered in the sky far south between Cuba and Hawaii. Researchers estimate that what was later called the Carrington event was 50 percent stronger than the magnetic storm of 1921.
The power supply is interrupted in just 90 seconds
In the NAS study, the authors modeled how such a super-eruption would affect the United States today. The results are frightening: Currents chasing through the high-voltage network would quickly destroy 300 transformers in key positions. In just 90 seconds, 130 million people in North America would be without electricity.
But that's just the beginning. Because the transformers cannot be repaired, they have to be replaced. That can take months, at worst years. After a few weeks a handful of transformers might be installed. The others have to be rebuilt first.
Medical care is no longer possible
The first thing to do is to cut off the drinking water supply. At the same time, the transport would come to a standstill. Trains, trams and subways are no longer running, and the shelves in the shops are emptying. There is no replenishment because the pumps at the petrol stations also fail, which paralyzes the delivery vans.
In some important facilities, such as clinics, emergency power generators start up. But their fuel is usually just enough for 72 hours. When it is used up, modern medical care ends. Elderly and emergency patients can no longer be adequately cared for, and many of them die.
Secondary consequences of death due to power failure
Even if parts of the network are repaired quickly, it is not certain whether they will also carry electricity. Because the power plants are standing still because they are running out of fuel. Coal power plants usually have reserves for around 30 days. If they are used up, they cannot be replenished due to a lack of transport capacity, and electricity-driven pumps are required to transport oil or gas through the pipes of the distribution network. People in their homes cannot heat or cool, causing many more deaths.
No help is expected, the NAS study continues. The affected area is too large for this, and the US neighboring countries lack the necessary capacities. Insurance company Lloyd’s estimates that a new Carrington incident could cost $ 0.6 to $ 2.6 trillion, and it would take four to ten years to repair all damage.
Devastating solar storm occurs roughly every 500 years
In addition, the GPS system, which cell phones, airplanes and cars use to determine their position, would be disrupted. In fact, according to the Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy, the satellite positioning service of the federal states temporarily failed during a solar storm in October 2003. Satellite-based television and radio transmissions would also fail. Paying with credit cards would be impossible in many places because these are linked to satellite transactions.
Fortunately, the likelihood of such a disaster is slim. Because very few CME reach the earth. Experts estimate that a solar storm comparable to the Carrington event only occurs every 500 years. According to a study by California researchers, however, the probability of occurrence is 12 percent - within the next ten years.
"Space weather is a security problem"
Politicians have now recognized the danger. "Space weather is a security problem and is on the agenda of all countries," says solar physicist Stefan Kraft from the European space agency Esa.
A warning period of several days would be enough to bring satellites into a controlled state, energy companies could reduce their power generation and switch off transformers, and aircraft could be rerouted. To this end, Nasa and Esa operate space weather services based on satellites. They report when a threatening CME is approaching. Today the warning time is 18 to 36 hours - that is how long it takes for a plasma cloud ejected by the sun to reach the earth.
Electricity grid operator: "Geomagnetic storms are not a relevant risk for Germany"
In Germany there is so far no official government analysis that “specifically looks at the effects of solar storms on electrotechnical infrastructures.” This was stated by the federal government in January of this year in response to a request from the “Die Linke” party. Studies are available for this that estimate the consequences for Europe.
After all, a few years ago the German power grid operators investigated the possible effects of solar storms on grid operation, including measurements on selected transformers. The result: The recorded and also much stronger geomagnetic storms "do not represent a relevant risk for network operation in Germany."
Low solar activity gives us time to take action to prevent damage
At the moment, however, the risk of a strong solar storm is low, because it is pretty calm on the sun. Our central star is approaching the minimum of its current solar cycle. Experts expect the next few cycles to be very weak.
Accordingly, the sun should only throw out a few CME. This would give mankind time to take action to prevent damage. But it is a deceptive calm. Because even in times of low activity, violent eruptions can occur. In May 2009, NASA's “stereo” solar satellites unexpectedly recorded a strong CME - in the middle of the minimum of the solar cycle at that time. According to the NAS study, the Carrington event also broke out of nowhere in the middle of an average cycle of activity. In addition, much more violent eruptions like that of 1859 are theoretically conceivable. So we should be prepared.
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