The world prepares for the threat posed by solar flares

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Space weather is rarely mentioned when world leaders discuss pressing threats to life on Earth. But behind the scenes, senior officials in Japan and other countries are growing increasingly concerned about solar flares. Many governments are stepping up measures to avert a potential disaster.

Massive explosions called flares occur on the surface of the sun. The rockets themselves pose no danger to us, but the radiation they emit can.

Explosions send X-rays, energetic particles and gases called CMEs out into space. If one reaches Earth, it could disrupt our communication systems, rendering telephones, the Internet, and the rest of our information infrastructure useless. GPS systems are of particular concern. The disruptions could threaten the safety of flights, drones and self-driving cars.

It only takes about 8 minutes for X-rays to reach Earth. CMEs last two to three days.

Solar flares can disrupt Earth’s information infrastructure.

Flare Warnings

Japanese scientists issue warnings when solar flares are large enough to cause disruption, but the Interior Ministry wants to improve their ability to observe and predict any danger.

The ministry convened a panel this month that will explore ways to better assess risk and limit damage.

“We want to think about how to prevent a major impact that could cripple economic activities in Japan,” said ministry official Yamaguchi Shingo.

Japan will explore ways to better assess the risk of solar flares.

Serious disturbances in the past justify the feeling of concern. Millions of people were plunged into darkness in the Canadian province of Quebec in 1989 when a geomagnetic storm knocked out the power grid for around 10 hours. A similar event occurred in Sweden in 2003, and that year a Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency satellite also suffered damage to some of its functions.

The UN recognizes the risk

The international community is also paying attention. In 2015, the United Nations adopted a document called the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. In a list of frame-relevant hazards that was released last year, space weather is listed along with other major threats to life, including earthquakes, heat waves and Covid-19.

The United States, Britain and China are among the many countries struggling with this problem. Last November, China announced that it had established a space weather center with Russia to monitor dangers in the skies.

Telco welcomes better forecasts

The Japanese telecom giant NTT is also taking a closer look. Researchers study how irradiation from particles created by solar flares and other phenomena affects electronic devices.

Iwashita Hidenori, a member of the team, says improving forecasts could prove vital to solving problems in the future. “We are always concerned about whether solar flares will affect our equipment,” he says, “so better projections will be extremely helpful.”

Iwashita
Iwashita Hidenori says “better screenings will be extremely helpful”.

Increased solar activity

The sun has recently entered a new cycle of activity that is expected to culminate in huge solar flares around 2025. Time is running out as the world tries to build up its defenses and avert catastrophe.

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