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Solar Storms Can 'Dodge' Detection Systems On Earth, Cause Damages To Power And Communications

First Posted: Oct 16, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

On Oct. 29, 2003, a massive solar storm was recorded by an observatory in Hungary, but somehow slipped by tens of other observatories across Earth, completely undetected. Dubbed the Halloween Solar Storm, it caused massive damages to power grids, but more alarmingly, alerted scientists to a vulnerability of their detection system indices. 

Observations from the Tihany Magnetic Observatory have shown that scientists' indices are sometimes completely unable to detect the Sun's geomagnectic perturbations to the Earth, also known as solar storms. This inability could pose a significant threat to power supply and communication networks across the globe.

Tihany registered a solar storm that was nearly identical to the Carrington Flare, the strongest solar storm ever recorded, observed by Richard Carrington in 1859. The Carrington Flare caused massive power outages and fires at North American and European telegraph system facilities.

However, alarmingly, this flare that Tihany recorded in 2003 went completely unnoticed by other observatories around the world, which incited a study to be conducted by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, published in the Journal of Space Weather and Space Climate, to examine why the indices failed to detect the storm.

In order to lower the risk of damages to technologies that society has become increasingly dependent on, scientists have developed several systems to detect these flares. 

One of these indices, the Disturbance Storm Time (Dst), is observed on an hourly basis by averaging data from four observatories across the world: Hermanus in South Africa, Kakioka in Japan, Honolulu in the United States, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. A second one, called SYM-H, assesses the horizontal portion of Earth's magnetic field by utilizing information collected from multiple observatories and a time resolution of one minute. Scientists can use these two systems to track the effects of large solar storms by using the systems wherein the prevailing data in magnetic records is Earth's latitude. 

Neither of these systems detected the storm in 2003, which affected Swedish and South African power plants, burning several transformers in these areas. 

"One of the conclusions is that the indices commonly used by scientists - such as Dst or SYM-H, which are based on an overall perspective of the Earth and obtained by calculating averages - failed to detect such an important event, and they most likely would have failed to detect the Carrington Event as well," Consuelo Cid, the lead author, said.

The study suggested that the scientific community's calculations of the data average from the different observatories could be incorrect. The disturbances could actually depend greatly on longitude, despite the scientific community's use of latitude in its calculations. This error can also be attributed to the fact that these solar storms can contain both positively and negatively charged particles, which would allow multiple flares to cancel one another out, masking the true measurement of the disturbance.

"A Carrington-like event may occur more often than we expect; actually, it might have already happened without us even realising it," Cid said.

Cid and her colleagues pointed out the need to develop local indices that are truly useful to companies that may be affected by these disturbances, such as electric companies, according to a news release. Cid's team developed an index for Spain in collaboration with the country's national power grid company, Red Electrica Espanola, called the Local Disturbance index (LDiñ), based on calculations from the San Pablo Observatory in Toledo.

"An index similar to LDiñ could be used in neighboring countries, such as Portugal, France and Italy; likewise, indices adjusted to each region could be developed for use in other parts of the world," Cid said.

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