Solar storms: harden your networks – its getting warmer.

Written By: - Date published: 9:16 am, June 11th, 2010 - 37 comments
Categories: climate change, science - Tags: , ,

The sun is emerging from its deep sleep of the Solar Minimum. The increased sensitivity of human networks from satellites to power grids is starting to worry people who know what they’re talking about enough to cause them to have held a meeting on it.

The sun produces sunspots in a reasonably regular eleven year cycle between Solar maximums. The amplitude varies over time as you can see from the counts over the last couple of centuries (the numbers prior to 1850 are a bit patchy).

Click for larger view

As the wikipedia entry on sunspots says:

The number of sunspots correlates with the intensity of solar radiation over the period since 1979, when satellite measurements of absolute radiative flux became available.

These allow plumes of higher energy particles than usual to get expelled from deep inside of the sun’s fusion furnace. The effect on the earths climate is fortunately limited by a earths magnetic field. However as more charged particles strike the field, it depresses closer to the surface and more charged particles get down to the surface.

In the geological history however there have been periodic magnetic inversions where the north and south magnetic poles flip. As wikipedia says:-

Because the magnetic field has never been observed to reverse by humans with instrumentation, and the mechanism of field generation is not well understood, it is difficult to say what the characteristics of the magnetic field might be leading up to such a reversal. Some speculate that a greatly diminished magnetic field during a reversal period will expose the surface of the earth to a substantial and potentially damaging increase in cosmic radiation. However, Homo erectus and their ancestors certainly survived many previous reversals. There is no uncontested evidence that a magnetic field reversal has ever caused any biological extinctions. A possible explanation is that the solar wind may induce a sufficient magnetic field in the Earth’s ionosphere to shield the surface from energetic particles even in the absence of the Earth’s normal magnetic field.[7]

Personally, while the biological systems may have evolved to handle the increased flux during the flip, I’d take a bet that our electrical and electronic technology hasn’t. They certainly have had problems with mere increases in the solar output from the sunspot cycle.

The leakage of extra charged particles into the atmosphere which have previously caused issues for our technological systems. Most notable in modern times was the power outage in the Quebec power grid in 1989 which was attributed to a solar storm. Modern electronics are far more susceptible to charged particles than electrical systems.

Over the last decade since a peak in late 90’s and early 00’s we’ve been diminishing to the Solar Minimum. However the number of sunspots is due to rise again.

The following quote is from prior to the last Solar Maximum. It is worth repeating simply because it gives the strong impression of the rate of change of vulnerable devices world wide. For instance I understand that there are more cellphones in operation in NZ these days than there was in the US in 1981.

Why should we care that we are now once again living under ‘sunspot maximum’ conditions? After all, we have already weathered at least five of these solar activity cycles since the end of World War II. What is different about the world today is that we are substantially more reliant upon computers and telecommunications to run our commerce, and even our forms of entertainment and recreation. In 1981, at the peak of solar cycle 21, there were 15 communication satellites in orbit. Cellular phones were rare and there were 800,000 PCs sold in the U.S. with 300 hosts on the Internet. By the time the peak of solar cycle 22 came around in 1989, there were 102 communication satellites, and 3 million cellular phone users in the United States. With the new Intel 80486-based PCs, you could send e-mail to your choice of 300,000 host machines on the Internet.

As we arrive at the peak of the 23rd sunspot cycle in 2000-2001, however, we enter a very different world far more reliant on what used to be the luxuries of the Space Age. By 2000, 349 communication satellites orbit the Earth supporting over $60 billion of commerce. Over 100 million people have cellular phones, and Global Positioning System handsets are a commonplace for people working, or camping, ‘off road’. By 2003, 400 million people will routinely use wireless data transmission via satellite channels. There will be over 10 million Internet hosts with 38% of US households Internet-connected. To support all of this, not only will we need more satellites, but we will need more electricity flowing in our power grid which will have to work under loads unheard of in the past. As voters continue to elect not to build more power plants, blackouts and brownouts will become more common as power companies run out of temporary sources of power to buy during peak-load conditions during the summer and winter.

Yeah, I remember those crude old days (when things look better in 20:20 hindsight). The simple days when there were only millions of nodes on the Internet. There were still a lot of aircraft flying without fly by wire systems. When kids didn’t have a cellphone for each network. When the number of transistors in the CPU’s and GPU’s of a desktop computer or laptops were measured in million’s, much the same as those in cellphones are today.

Of course there is also the issue of where the extra energy pushed into the atmosphere and trapped with the increased greenhouse effect is going to wind up. The average temperatures around the world have been rising steadily during a period heading to the Solar Minimum as part of a long term trend. After all we have managed to keep the temperature averages rising over the last decade instead of doing their post Solar Maximum decrease. Now more energy is coming online…..

37 comments on “Solar storms: harden your networks – its getting warmer.”

  1. James John 1

    great article thank you.

  2. I look forward to a hotter summer

  3. really 3

    Interesting post Lynn. Those electronic manufacturers will be rubbing their hands together hoping for a rash of breakdowns and replacement purchases.

    Not sure about the last graph as the base it is using is the “Best estimate for absolute global mean for 1951-1980 is 14.0 deg-C” (1) , so while it is a good indicator for a possible temperature trend it a) is a bit of a guess because of the base uncertainty b) doesn’t show any cycles so makes it hard to determine what may or may not be happening in relation to solar flare cycles.


    • Draco T Bastard 3.1


    • lprent 3.2

      It is a delta chart to show temperature differences from an arbitrary base. It obviously has to start from somewhere, and the period they have picked is where there are reasonably good global records. Also 1950 onwards is in the current long term pattern of higher Solar Maximums.

      But it doesn’t really matter what the base used from where we have good temperature records. The effect in the last 50-100 years is always the same, a fast climb in tempatures.

      If they’d used a base of around 1905 as Don Easterbrook was suggesting in my previous post, then the delta climb would have been even higher because the Solar Max was a lot lower.

      If they’d picked around 1850 when the apparent peaks were higher, we’d still be showing a fast rise.

      • really 3.2.1

        Agree. The margin for error is still reasonably high.

        • lprent

          Sure, but the margin is pretty much on when things will happen rather than if they will happen. The science of atmospheric physics is pretty clear and unambiguous. Increasing greenhouse gases will increase the amount of energy retained as heat in our living space.

          Since the heat balance of the earth is very finely balanced, any sudden change (geologically speaking) tends to shift out of the narrow band that we’ve lived in for the last 10k years. Our civilization has a massive implicit dependency on the stability of the climate, so that isn’t good. Especially with the natural resource base stretched as far as it is into unsustainable usage because of population and expectation growth.

          The IPCC reports are very conservative scientifically because the science parts concentrate exclusively on what can be proven. I find that their worst case scenario is pretty much what I’d expect as an absolute best case (and their other two scenarios are just laughable). All of the since proven evidence since AR4 shows that, especially in the areas for positive feedback like ice cover.

          There is a high margin for error. Unfortunately it is all to the worse, and nothing to the better. Of course people who can’t follow the evidence prefer not to believe that. It’d involve hard changes…. Something that humans excel in avoiding.

          • really

            Yes things are changing and yes the downsides make pretty grim reading.

            The issue that I have is not with the fact that one directional climate change is a bad thing but with the degree of reliance on things like the historical (assumed) baseline temperatures to prove that this is happening.

            Out of interest, is there a commonly accepted ‘list’ of things that could easily be done/implemented to reduce climate change?

            • lprent

              Yeah there are a range of things from orbital mirrors to getting the oceans to suck up more CO2 to storing CO2 in empty oil wells.

              Most of them are palliatives in that they don’t have long-term stability – they depend on having the high-energy civilization to maintain them, or they simply defer the problem for a short period of time – eg the ocean ideas.

              The simplest (and easiest) is to reduce the dependence on burning fossil carbon. That is more of failure of will than a technical issue.

  4. Bored 4

    Interesting stuff, the on the ground effects are going to be the interesting bits….

    From a weather viewpoint last spring we had a hugely windy time here in the Capital…cooler and wetter. I saw an item in November describing the El Nino event and that water temperatures mid Pacific were several degrees higher than average creating a big hot spot. In laymans terms this warmed air above it rose to be replaced by cooler air sucked in from the Southern ocean. It all seemed to come through Cook Straight giving us a crap spring.

    I would be interested to see some follow up on this like a regular report so we can track what effects actually happen, does the base information come from a regular source?

    • lprent 4.1

      Should be pretty standard data sources. I picked large chunks of this off NASA after I read a yahoo post. The sunspot data is ultimately from the collection point in Belgium. All of the data is pretty much available on the net these days. (of course there is the underlying question of the net handling the subject 🙂 )

      Hang out for wordpress 3.0 with its multi-site goodies. I want to set up a that this type of post would be perfect for – along with my rants about iTunes – and anyone else who can write.

      Politics as a continual diet isn’t all that fulfilling 😈

      • NickS 4.1.1

        If I haven’t got a blog up and running by then, I might have a piece on 1080 and general pest control and fluoridation stupidity, and conservation/ecology stuff that I could chuck your way for it.
        /evil grin

        • lprent

          The delays are getting to be a bit of a pain – April, May, and now June for WordPress 3.0. But it should be soon. You’re welcome to come on as an author (because you can write) – the same relaxed rules as the political blog for authors. Since we’re not writing papers but more communicating scitech, I’d prefer pseudonymous.

          The blogs will cross-reference posts in the Community tabs on the right, because politics is science and vice-versa. Traffic and number of posts will probably be somewhat smaller than the political side.

          • NickS

            Awesome and thanks, but since I’ll probably be cross-posting stuff on my own blog I’ll use my current name. Though I’ll save the more esoteric, “what the hell/my brain hurts” stuff for my one 😀

            • lprent

              Cool. The stuff will be more science and tech overview – like the stuff that various of us have been writing. But with resource pages as well (so i can do things like put up example code).

              • NickS

                Neat, I just need to keep my present upswing motivation rolling then, though with the downtime due to dropping down to one course next semester and the temp-agency job-dance I should have plenty of time to pull together some good posts.

                I might try some brain storming tomorrow then and see if I can build up a bank of science topics related to present political issues, and finally get started on the 1080 thing.

                Which has been sitting on the back-burner for a year now.

                And I look forward to the iTunes rant.

      • Bored 4.1.2

        Excellent idea, I am really interested in posting on ecology, environmental issues that raise to raise awareness, would be good as it i see a lot locally but theres a hell of a lot more to be known / seen / discusssed etc.

      • travellerev 4.1.3

        Hi LPrent

        I’ve managed to secure the name “Subversive Foodie” and I’m working on my Diary Of a Subversive Foodie blog. I have you see, an extremely sinful hobby. Making my own fermented meats (Hams, Bacon sausages and all the Charcutery stuff you can’t get here) and cheeses (all the down and dirty un-pasteurised European style cheeses you can’t get here either) and growing my own foods etc. (I’ve stopped fermenting my own booze because it was just to good and to easy, Sigh)

        Anyway this seems to be almost subversive these day hence the name. LOL.

        • Santi

          Do you wear a tin-foil hat while preparing all these delicacies, Dutch Einstein?

          • RedLogix

            These ugly, misery gutted little noises you are dropping all over the threads don’t add much signal. Lift your game.

          • travellerev

            I don’t get it Santi,

            Sometimes you actually say sensible things. So why the vile stupidity in the face of real tangible discrepancies and mis-information in and about the official story and why here when we are talking about things absolutely not related to what you call conspiracy theories?

            Could it be you’re suffering from Cognitive dissonance?

  5. Oscar 5

    Solar Maximum also coincides with the planets lining up with the black hole in the centre of our galaxy.
    No idea what effect, if any, this will have. As it is the first time these two events coincide in nearly 2000 years, there is no recorded knowledge of what happens on earth.
    Will our seasons be affected? Will the poles shift even more, knowing that the north pole is shifting rapidly from hudson bay? Who knows.

    • NickS 5.1

      There will be no effect, why? Because your dealing with very, very small levels of gravitational attraction, that only really impacts on large masses, like stars. Where as planets generally are influence by objects within far smaller interstellar distances, mainly local large bodies of mass, like local stars, and heavier objects, along with planets, dwarf planets, moons and rocks. All of which can be worked out via basic Newtonian gravitational equations for two bodies, and forecasting techniques for three + bodies.

      Also, our star orbits the central black hole, which means we come into “alignment” with it regularly. aka we would have probably seen effects within human time scales already.

      Oh yeah, people, please quit it with the 2012 nonsense already, or at least explain it to your kids/other people’s kids that it’s a load of bullshit:

      And next person to spout 2012 nonsense will be cluebatted with

    • Bright Red 5.2

      I’m pretty sure that’s not right.

      a) the planets won’t be ‘lined up’ any time soon

      b) when, as must very occassionally occur, the planets are all in a line from the sun, the odds that they will be pointing towards the centre of the galaxy are (literally) astronomical. In fact, I’m not even sure the Solar plane intercepts with the Galactic plane in such a way that they could point towards the centre of the galaxy.

      c) even if it did happen the forces are minute. The effect of gravity from the Earth on us is 10 metres a second squared, the effect of the Sun is 0.0006 of that. The other planets have a combined mass about 1% of the Sun’s. And the gravitational attraction of the galaxy on us is (by my reckoning) 0.00002 of earth’s gravity on us.

  6. NickS 6

    Personally, while the biological systems may have evolved to handle the increased flux during the flip…


    Nyet, infrequent events like that only drive selection during the event, rather than in-between events, meaning that other selection pressures alter what ever traits were selected for. And even then, dealing with it might be as simple as plain old phenotypic plasticity in terms of up-regulation of protective proteins and DNA repair enzymes 😛


    • really 6.1

      Translation, more birth defects and aborted pregnancies during these events?

      • NickS 6.1.1

        No, your talking about a jump in background radiation that is presently thought not to be a big driver of cancer-causing mutations per studies of populations living around (well maintained) nuclear power plants*. Will it cause a statistically significant increase in background radiation that will cause an increase in mutation rates? Yeap, but as I said there’s ways of dealing with this that involve up-regulating DNA repair enzymes, and not all mutations lead to malignant cancerous cells (many genetic roads, more oft than not rather biochemically twisty), or mid-late term miscarriages and abortions due to fetal abnormalities. To put in perspective, you’re much more likely to end up with cancer via working with radiation sources or mutagenic chemicals (and not following all the safety requirements) than you are from a slight increase in background radiation.

        And on the miscarriages, from memory I don’t think we have a good idea about the early term rate of them (clinically apparent vs non-apparent or non recorded), which is the first hurdle to generally clear. However I don’t have recent stuff lurking in my memory, and wikipedia isn’t much help.

        ugh, stupid wikipedians not sticking relevant info on the right page:

        So basically, our electrical stuff is more at risk from solar flares and magnetic field reversals than organic life is, unless you happen to be in an unshielded space craft/station, in which case you’re going to get more than the recommended dose.

        *What the authors failed to do was link the rates of blood cancers to viral diseases via anti-body tests + a few other controls if memory serves me right.

        • really

          Thanks Nick. Looking forward to your posts on the scitech blog.

          Should be a good addition to the NZ blogosphere.

          Can I humbly suggest that the scitech blog does not focus predominately on Climate Change, the reason being that it is a politically charged topic and will attract nutjobs of all colours.

          • lprent

            Hey I’m a programmer writing this on my brand new iPad. There is a limit on how much tech stuff I can write on a political blog. Same for the science (my first degree).

            I suspect that climate change will still be there because I am interested in the science. But it comes up here because the science is pretty well defined. The problem is political

          • NickS

            Thanks Nick. Looking forward to your posts on the scitech blog.

            Should be a good addition to the NZ blogosphere.

            Thanks, I just need to try and deal with motivation fun from my (treated) depression, but that’s what my student union fees pay for with really cheap counselling sessions. I just need to avoid the usual symptom of not breaking things done and pick up on some of the writing tricks the most excellent Ed Yong uses, and less like Darren Nash as I tend to…

            Hmmn, might need to actually start using that thread again to keep myself sane while I try and get some part time work.

            Can I humbly suggest that the scitech blog does not focus predominately on Climate Change, the reason being that it is a politically charged topic and will attract nutjobs of all colours.

            It comes down to the Emissions Trading Scheme and whatever succeeds the Kyoto Treaty, and the political opposition to it from ACT*, but also National’s pathetic modifications to the ETS and seeming incapability to be bothered with climate change. An issue that should not be, in my view, allowed to slip quietly out of sight.

            On top of that, I’m of the opinion that the IPCC is being far too conservative on feed-back effects, primarily the methane being released as methane clathrates decompose, though I’m more interested in ecological feed-back effects, such as changes in vegetation patterns and animal ranges.

            *And no mention of ACT’s braindeadness on climate change is complete without posting the following link about how ACT effectively sold out their previously sensible (for ACT…) climate change policies for some political funding:

            • RedLogix

              Thanks, I just need to try and deal with motivation fun from my (treated) depression,

              Best wishes with that. My older daughter whose just graduated from Vic (in an Earth Science) has also been hit badly by it as well. From what she says its seems a ridiculously common after-effect of completing a degree course these days.

              • NickS

                …And before I forget again…

                Thanks, though I’ve had this since before getting my BSc, so around 5 years, 3 years without knowing about it, and the 2 I did doing the ye olde NZ male stupidity of not getting proper help for it.

                And I hope your daughter gets through it.

  7. Jenny 7

    I remember reading somewhere that a severe electromagnetic storm struck the earth in the 1890’s with enough force to seriously damage the nascent hard wired telegraph system.

    Considering that such early communications technology was by it’s nature far more robust than modern electronic based communications, and even electricity supply systems, the consequence of a an electromagnetic storm of similar strength hitting today because of our reliance on these systems would be far more damaging.

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