Traveling at the near speed of light, energetic
particles shooting out from the sun can zip through space, smack into our planet’s atmosphere,
and cause incredible disruptions. And one of the biggest impacts we know of happened
during the tail end of the Vietnam War. President Nixon really wanted to pull us out, but wanted
to do it sort of saving face, and decided that the best way to do that was to stop the
flow of war material into North Vietnam. The decision was to mine Haiphong Harbor, and
many of the smaller harbors to the South. This is Delores Knipp, a space weather scientist
and former officer in the US Air Force. She likes digging into dusty archives, and uncovered
a war mystery that’s now connected to a major solar event. Space weather forecasters
had noticed that there was one region on the Sun that appeared to be a little more active
than anticipated. They kept watching it, and then when it came around in late July 1972
on the east limb of the Sun it was already large. It did start producing solar flares,
producing coronal mass ejections but at that time we didn't have those words. We didn't
really understand the concept of the Sun actually throwing mass, and magnetic material out.
We had a general sense that something like a plasma cloud was coming at us, but our ideas
were that, "Well, okay it might get here in a couple three days." As a matter of fact,
it got here in 14.6 hours. Typically, the solar wind is moving at about 400 kilometers
per second, which is supersonic, but very, very tenuous. But this particular event in
1972 traveled at about 2,800 kilometers per second, so seven times faster than the norm,
and carrying tremendous magnetic field, and mass with it. And when that hit, our magnetic
shield virtually buckled. We had no idea that something could come from the Sun that fast.
We were pretty much unprepared. And when it hit earth, those sea mines blew up. Those
mines were what the president was relying on to keep the pressure on in the war. And
suddenly the whole mine field had been swept by nature, by the Sun, by a CME. That created
probably one of the largest solar energetic particle events in recorded history. The naval
observers who were up at the time, it was just past dawn, noted that there were a half-dozen
sea mines that blew within 30 seconds. And they go, "Whoa! Did we do that?" It was a
furious time in terms of the Navy records, trying to figure out what had happened. In
these declassified reports, Delores found just a few lines that had basically said,
"Yes, in August of 1972 "a solar storm swept the sea mines in Haiphong Harbor." And so
I go, "Oh, it looks like something did happen." There were and are many impacts that have not been
adequately described. And they're just now starting to come to light. Our sun is a huge
ball of magnetized gas and plasma, and it’s activity goes through a roughly 11 year cycle. We
know whether we’re in a solar maximum or solar minimum by counting the number of sunspots
on the surface. These spots are indicators for giant eruptions, like solar flares, which
are sudden outbursts of energy and coronal mass ejections, which are even larger but
slower eruptions from the Sun’s corona. They can increase during the sun’s cycle, but
luckily, we have some built in protection. We can think of Earth's magnetic field as
being kind of a magnetic cocoon that keeps most of the solar winds, magnetic field, and
the plasma outside of Earth's atmosphere. But when the sun decides to launch a really
big ejection, sometimes the magnetic field has to deform so dramatically that currents
are generated, and those currents can actually flow along the magnetic field lines down to
Earth's surface. And that's one of our biggest concerns. If those extra currents are flowing
in the ground, they're always looking for the path of least resistance. And when they
find a path along a long conducting pipe, or in older times, telegraph wires, or now
in our power grid, they will take that path. We're starting to understand that these are not
once in a century events. These probably occur more often than we think. We're in solar
minimum now, we're kind of relaxed the next solar maximum was forecast to be not too spectacular. The
August '72 event came out of small sunspot cycles. So we can't just take the sunspot
count as the, oh, we don't have to worry about it situation. We actually have to be monitoring
the Sun 24/7. Today at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, we have more eyes on the
sun and better models to help us predict space weather, which is affecting our magnetosphere,
it's creating the Aurora, it's also energizing particles and creating radiation environment
that can affect satellites, it affects the ionosphere in those regions and that impacts
airlines that have flights from New York to Beijing. There are several things that are
really important for conducting space weather operations. The first are satellites, which
serve as sentinels out in the abyss. The GOES satellites give you the daily weather
that you see on the news at night. But in addition, the space weather observations
consist of monitoring the energetic particles in Earth's radiation belt at geosynchronous
orbit. They also monitor the earth's magnetic field and its variations. There's solar observations
that are looking at the Sun in x-rays, in extreme ultraviolet to give us information
about activity on the sun. Activity like coronal mass ejections and solar flares, which have
different lead times once they erupt. We classify solar flares here starting with what
we call A. And then we have the B level and then C level and then M’s and then X’s.
And each one of those categories is ten times more intense than the other. The 1972 event
that blew up a bunch of sea mines were connected to X class flares. We have instruments measuring
the intensity of the solar radiation and it appears very quickly in near real time in
front of our forecasters and then they could use that information to provide their warnings
and alerts. The other type of major event is this coronal mass ejection, it’s moving
much slower. Right now we're using coronagraphs that are on a NASA satellite. It takes as
short as maybe 14 hours for a very fast event…but it can take more normally several days to
reach us. We have a little bit more lead say something about how fast is it
moving? When do we expect it at Earth? How long do we expect it to last?" We've got another
satellite that's entirely outside of earth's magnetosphere in a location between Earth
and the Sun called the Lagrange point L1. That's a stable place where both the gravity
and the centrifugal force of the satellite balance out the earth's gravitational force
and it's always there as a buoy upstream to give us a warning of what's coming at Earth. Another
key piece of their operations are models, which are constantly evolving to improve predictions. The
Wang Sheeley Arge Enlil model shows us where there's high speed solar wind coming at us,
where there's low speed solar wind coming at us, the density of that solar wind. When
there's a large eruption on the sun of a coronal mass ejection. The Wang Sheeley Arge Enlil
model.. takes that coronal mass ejection and puts it through that system and then it tells
us what's going to arrive at Earth. The Geospace model is telling us about magnetic variations
in the vicinity of Earth and those magnetic variations can cause geo electric fields.
Those geo electric fields can drive currents and power lines and disrupt power grids. Models
are only as good as our understanding and models don't catch everything and there are
times where we have been surprised. There are a lot of features about the sun that we
still don't understand. We need to be able to model how the Sun's interior works the
solar atmosphere. We need to be able to monitor active regions of the sun and how they form. There
is a huge concerns at the highest levels in government to be able to better prepare for
a large event to better mitigate the effects. I'm optimistic about all of these new advances
that are coming in and all of these things which are going to contribute to our preparedness
for the things the Sun is throwing at us. It's a real sense of adventure. It's like
you can realize that you're a part of something that is developing. The Sun, it's so far away
and yet, within a short amount of time, it can have this amazing impact. And it's not
just oh yeah, the sun warms us up and we have seasons, there's a lot more going on, and
it's a very connected system. Even though some of these stories have been hidden these
things have actually happened, and there's a potential for it to happen again.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. If the sun is about eight minutes (and change) light minutes away, wont we always be 8 minutes too late?

  2. I see that Seeker is approaching the complex Design Art to simulations it would be good to see the narrators within the same dimension of the artistic representations integrated with real simulations.

  3. It's really sad reading all the comments. Everybody is trying to be funny in order to get more likes and almost nobody is discussing the science of the event. But don't worry guys, you are so funny and amazing. I can't stop laughing from your amazing sense of humor.

  4. Humanity is not ready.. not only the danger of the sun. We have nothing in terms of
    Defence of the planet you’d think we’d want to protect the planet first then figure out our differences

  5. I love their passion, it gives me inspiration since I'm working on a research project for school based on the effects of solar flares on m-dwarf systems.

  6. Wow nature swept a mine field.. I love my mama … mother nature treats us like babies until It kills us.. just like real mothers

  7. Scientist: "Sun Flares are very concerning because once they blew up half of our deployed sea mines…"
    Me: "…wait… You deployed, HOW MANY SEA MINES???"

  8. "Models are just as good as our understanding". A scientist that admits that is a honest scientist who truly seeks the truth.

  9. And our magnetic field has been decreasing dramatically… add a minor CME… mmmm.. Earth has experienced a lot of power failures that are blamed on the sun recently.. without warning?

  10. Global warming is now affecting the sun. It’s time to change how we live here on earth. Our action have bigger impact than what we think

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