Space weather has the potential to wreak havoc on everything from satellite communications to electric power. Sarah Gibson at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is studying the behavior of the sun to help warn against a serious solar storm should it threaten Earth. "When Nature Strikes" is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the National Science Foundation and The Weather Channel. For a classroom activity related to this video, please click the Links section below.
When Nature Strikes -- Space Weather
MARSHALL SHEPHERD reporting:
When people think of natural disasters, they tend to think of earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes. But Sarah Gibson, an astrophysicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and funded by the National Science Foundation, is more concerned about a phenomenon called space weather, that begins millions of miles from Earth, and could mean lights out for the entire world.
On October 28, 2003, power unexpectedly went out in parts of Europe. Satellite communications were interrupted, forcing the re-routing of air traffic, and astronauts on board the International Space Station were ordered to seek shelter in a protective core.
LESTER HOLT reporting:
The effects of a big solar storm expected to be felt on Earth today.
SHEPHERD: What caused all of these disturbances? Surprisingly, these disruptions, known as the Halloween Storm of 2003, were the result of a storm taking place on the surface of the sun, part of a complex set of natural processes known as space weather.
SARAH GIBSON (National Center for Atmospheric Research): Space weather is how the environment around the Earth and all in the solar system may vary because of activity at the sun.
SHEPHERD: The most recognizable form of space weather is the Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights. While the Aurora is a harmless and dazzling light show, it is the result of a potentially dangerous solar weather event called a coronal mass ejection or CME.
GIBSON: A CME is when you have a sudden explosion of mass from the sun that is hurled out into the solar system. And it travels at a million miles an hour, and gets to Earth in anywhere from one to four days.
SHEPHERD: CME's originate in the area that surrounds our sun, called the corona. These solar storms begin as sunspots, areas packed with massive amounts of energy. Occasionally, the energy continues to build, until it snaps, spewing large amounts of X-rays and other particles into the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere.
GIBSON: When the sun has sunspots, there are strong magnetic fields there. And when you have strong magnetic fields, there’s a lot of energy. And this energy can drive one of these coronal mass ejections.
SHEPHERD: The radiation that is released from a CME could be deadly. Fortunately, Earth has its own protective magnetic field that shields us from most of the harmful effects of space weather. But if a CME is strong enough, and on a collision course with Earth, it can impact electronics and technology in the sky and on the ground just like it did in 2003.
GIBSON: The Halloween Storm of 2003 that was a spooky one. There were several storms all lined up. And these CME’s were notable because there were so many of them and they were so big.
SHEPHERD: The Halloween Storm of 2003 stands as a dire warning of what could happen if a bigger or more numerous set of coronal mass ejections were to head directly for Earth. A CME take at least 24 hours to reach Earth, not a lot of lead time. But further study into the sun’s magnetic field could help forecast these storms and better predict their behavior.
GIBSON: The first thing would be the flare. We’d see that flash of light. And there’d be radio interference all over. The next thing that would happen is that particles that were accelerated to almost the speed of light would come rushing from the sun.
SHEPHERD: As the particles reach Earth's magnetic field, they would cause complex interactions and increased energy levels within the Earth's atmosphere that can wreak havoc with power grids, satellites, and interfere with GPS, setting off a chain reaction that could disable communication systems worldwide.
GIBSON: Communications, navigation, GPS. Pretty much everything that we’ve come to depend on would go on the fritz.
SHEPHERD: Landline and cellular phones would stop working. Credit and debit cards wouldn't be able to process. The Internet could go completely dark no email, social media, or search engines. In the worst case scenario, even power grids would go dark.
GIBSON: All told, it could be a serious problem that would have impact for months or even years to come.
SHEPHERD: To better prepare for the next major CME, scientists around the world are monitoring the sun's activity and gathering valuable information about the behavior of its magnetic fields. Using this data, Gibson and her team at NCAR's Mesa Lab have constructed mathematical models that accurately simulate the effects of space weather on the Earth.
Further understanding of the basic functions of the sun, Gibson believes, is crucial to improving predictions and for aiding engineers, power companies, and governments for what could be the world's worst natural disaster.
GIBSON: I think the most important thing we can do right now as scientists is to try to understand the magnetic field inside a CME as it comes from the sun to the Earth, and figuring out clever ways to get those observations and to change our predictions as we go.
SHEPHERD: Predictions that could mean the difference between a very bright and a very dark future.
Shortly after 4 a.m. on a crisp, cloudless September morning in 1859, the sky above what is currently Colorado erupted in bright red and green colors. Fooled by the brightness into thinking it was an early dawn, gold-rush miners in the mountainous region of what was then called the Kansas Territory woke up and started making breakfast.
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