Irish physicists develop advanced solar flare warning system

6 Jul 2015

With the help of a solar storm alarm system developed by physicists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) the Earth may soon be able to see exactly when a solar storm on the sun occurs, and prepare our electronics systems for an imminent impact.

While solar flare eruptions on the surface of the sun are frequent, for the most part they pose little-if-any threat to those of us on Earth with our atmosphere protecting us from any harmful radiation that is projected our way.

However, on occasion, the Earth will find itself in the firing line of a massive burst of solar radiation that, while not posing much in the way of a physical threat to us, can cause great disturbances in our magnetic field, which can ultimately lead to electrically-powered devices and power grids overloading, causing serious disruptions.

Looking at examples, the recent St Patrick’s Day solar flare that created beautiful northern lights above the skies of Ireland posed no threat to those below, but the 1989 solar flare that struck the atmosphere above Canada in 1989 knocked out power for 6m Canadians, disrupted radio communications and cost the country’s government CA$13bn (€9bn) in damages.

For this reason, monitoring when a solar flare occurs and seeing what effect it might have for us is critical for the power grid infrastructure both here and in the UK, and it will soon be aided by TCD’s magnetometer array, which can detect activity in the Earth’s atmosphere and at least give 10 minutes of notice to those who need to know the information most.

Auroa Borealis in Mayo

The Aurora Borealis lighting up the sky green for Saint Patrick’s Day 2015 at Dún Briste sea stack, Co. Mayo. Image via Brian Wilson

“A warning message from our magnetometer network developed by Trinity and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies notified me of the onset of a large geomagnetic storm as I watched the St Patrick’s Day parade with my family,” said Peter Gallagher, associate professor of physics at TCD, of the magnetometer’s testing.

He continued: “My research student Sean Blake quickly ran the British Geological Survey’s magnetic storm model to see if there were any threats to the Irish power grid. Despite the storm’s size, no significant effects were predicted, or indeed reported.”

The magnetometer is also just one of several atmospheric monitoring devices used by the TCD research team that can pick up a solar flare three days before it reaches us here on Earth.

While the St Patrick’s Day event proved to be harmless from an electronics point of view, the system developed by the TCD team will allow for much more detailed future research and offer a historical model to work from during future research, offering rich detail of what occurred during a particular atmospheric event.

According to Gallagher, however, the magnetometer array is still in a proof of concept stage, but after successful testing during the St Patrick’s Day event, it is hoped to be fully operational within a year’s time.

Solar flare image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic