This solar storm detector may help save us from apocalypses

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Our sun is a dynamic beast. Massive bursts of super hot gas and magnetic fields, dubbed coronal mass ejections, happen from time to time in the Sun's atmosphere.

When they pass by our planet, the larger ones can disrupt GPS, power grids and other communication systems, potentially leaving us geographically and socially stranded. Thanks, Sun! But in all seriousness, that could have massive economic repercussions. Remember the blackout in New York? What would happen if a super huge solar storm blacked out the entire planet?!

The National Academy of Sciences estimated such a strike could cause $2 TRILLION in damage. And a huge July 2012 storm alllmost hit us directly. If it had, there might have been serious trouble for the electrical grid and we might have seen "northern lights" down by the equator, as happened during the Carrington event of 1859.


Right now, scientists can detect a potentially problematic flare-up 30 to 60 minutes in advance, which may not be enough time to make adjustments to the infrastructure that underpins GPS and power grids. But now, some scientists from Imperial College London say they've developed a better tool that can predict large solar storms more than a day in advance. They published their study today in the journal Space Weather.

"As we become more entwined with technology, disruption from large space weather events affects our daily lives more and more," said Neel Savani, the lead author of the study, in a press release. "Breaking through that 24 hour barrier to prediction is crucial for dealing efficiently with any potential problems before they arise."

The reported improvements of Savani's new predictive tool over currently available methods hinged on looking at where they originate on the sun's surface and the shape of the cloud they form. These variables affect the magnetic fields of the solar storms and how these magnetic fields evolve as they travel toward the earth. In some cases, they can shape-shift in such a way that they match the orientation of the Earth's magnetic field. When that happens, the cloud "dumps" magnetised material into the Earth's atmosphere, wreaking havoc. Remember how compasses didn't seem to work well on Lost because of the Island's electormagnetic properties? Same concept.

So far, the researchers have only tested their algorithms on eight solar storms that happened between 2010 and 2014. The true test of the technology will be the next big one. We'll see if their tool stands up to its promise.

Now for a close-up (it looks like shape-shifting rose):

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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