One strangely sunny day, I was discussing with a friend about recent advancements in science and our ability to more accurately predict solar storms. Our discussion led us down the path of why we even study solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), Faraday cages, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), etc.
A few of the main reasons we study solar activity is due to the direct impact to our atmosphere, they are the most energetic explosions in our solar system, and can help us understand fusion reactions better so we can harness that energy eventually (...any day now).
So what is the difference between a solar flare and CME? A solar flare per NASA “is an intense burst of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots.” Whereas a CME is a sudden and violent release of “gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several hours.” The video below illustrates these differences very well.
The biggest issue we have in dealing with these solar storms on Earth is the impact they have on satellites, navigation and communications signals, overloading power grids. A CME of 'unprecedented magnitude' would have the power to wipe out all electrical systems, devices, etc. across the globe.
New research published in October in The Astrophysical Journal Letters details the possibility of superflares with the potential to "release energy equivalent to a billion megaton bombs." This scenario is highly unlikely, but could be the next unscientific Hollywood movie in which Bruce Willis saves the world.
In a more realistic scenario, NASA followed a superstorm CME in July of 2012 that barely missed Earth. This Superstorm CME got little media attention, but would have had incredible implications to our lives on Earth as the video below explains.
In 2013, the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act | (PDF) was introduced to protect the grid from EMPs or solar storms at the relatively small cost of $500 million. Unfortunately, this bill was not enacted even thought the National Academy of Sciences determined "an estimate of $1 trillion to $2 trillion during the first year alone was given for the societal and economic costs of a "severe geomagnetic storm scenario" with recovery times of 4 to 10 years.”
Nonetheless, a team of scientists, engineers, and astronmers have created Solar Storm Watch to get the publics help in analyzing and observing solar activity data. We also have NASA's SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory) monitoring solar activity around the clock to help give us a bit of a warning.
There have even been very interesting discussions on fortifying our power plants to protect from CMEs and electromagnetic pulses. NOAA, Lloyd’s, and ORNL research papers show that our grid is in massive need of imporvements to protect against these storms. Extensive research done by the US Geological Survey (PDF) parallels these other institutions positions on how vulnerable we are to these geomagnetic disruptions.
Here is an incredibly lengthy article discussing the threat from CMEs, EMPs and hackers on the power grid.
So now what? If the government is still dragging their feet on upgrading our system, how does one protect their data from a possible, but not probable catastrophic event?
Enter Michael Faraday in 1843 and the Faraday cage. I won’t go into his story of how he worked this all out, but needless to say he had fun with an ice pail. There are many resources online on how to build such a cage.
I follow the simple idea that it is better to be prepared than not. After hearing about the 2012 Carrington-class CME shortly after it happened, I decided why not and built a Faraday cage. I stored my digital memories of family videos and photos, documents, etc. on a few different mediums (SD cards, USB flash drives, and SSD) to hopefully ensure their existence. We can only hope that cloud service providers have taken the precautionary measures.
A company recently created a wallpaper that could let someone turn a large room into a Faraday cage if you were so inclined. Needless to say, some people have already gone to the extreme and built a massive cage around their bed so they can allow their body its natural healing frequency and sleep peacefully every night...
Either way, it is likely you have some digital files you’d prefer not to have wiped out forever and a few simple steps can help you avoid that situation. While the scenario may be improbable, it is not impossible.
Finally, here is a very cool resource of current space weather conditions from the Space Weather Prediction Center. The Solar Dynamic Observatory is another resource in which one can also browse tons of data on the sun.