A new study in the research journal Space Weather considers what might happen if a worst-case coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth — a “perfect solar storm,” if you will.
In 2014, Bruce Tsurutani of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Gurbax Lakhina of the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism introduced the “perfect CME.” It could create a magnetic storm with intensity up to the saturation limit, a value greater than the Carrington Event of 1859, the researchers said. Many other spaceweather effects would not be limited by saturation effects, however. The interplanetary shock would arrive at Earth within about 12 hours, the shock impingement onto the magnetosphere would create a sudden impulse of around 234 nanoteslas (nT), and the magnetic pulse duration in the magnetosphere would be about 22 seconds. Orbiting satellites would be exposed to “extreme levels of flare and interplanetary CME (ICME) shock-accelerated particle radiation,” they said. The event would follow an initial CME that would “clear the path in front of it, allowing the storm cloud to hit Earth with maximum force.”
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has observed CMEs leaving the sun at speeds of up to 3,000 kilometers per second, and many instances of one CME clearing the way for another have been recorded.
The CME’s 12-hour travel time would allow little margin for preparation. The CME would hit Earth’s magnetosphere at 45 times the local speed of sound, and the resulting geomagnetic storm could be as much as twice as strong as the Carrington Event. Power grids, GPS, and other services could experience significant outages.
More recent research led by physicist Dan Welling of the University of Texas at Arlington took a fresh look at Tsurutani and Lakhina’s “perfect CME,” and given improvements in spaceweather modeling, he was able to reach new conclusions.
Welling’s team found that geomagnetic disturbances in response to a perfect CME could be 10 times stronger than Tsurutani and Lakhina had calculated, especially at latitudes above 45 to 50 °. “[Our results] exceed values observed during many past extreme events, including the March 1989 storm that brought down the Hydro-Québec power grid in eastern Canada, the May 1921 railroad storm, and the Carrington Event itself,” Welling summarized.
A key result of the new study is how the CME would distort and compress Earth’s magnetosphere. The strike would push the magnetopause down until it’s only 2 Earth-radii above Earth’s surface. Satellites in Earth orbit would suddenly find themselves exposed to a hail of energetic, and potentially damaging, charged particles.
Other research has indicated that phenomena such as the Carrington Event may not be as rare as once thought. A much weaker magnetic storm brought down the Canadian Hydro‐Québec system in 1989.
Scientists believe a perfect CME will happen someday. As Welling et al conclude, “Further exploring and preparing for such extreme activity is important to mitigate spaceweather-related catastrophes.”
In July 2012, NASA and European spacecraft watched an extreme solar storm erupt from the sun and narrowly miss Earth. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado at a NOAA Space Weather Workshop 2 years later. “It might have been stronger than the Carrington Event itself.”