On Dec 13, 2006, a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare.
Long-term observation of the decay rate of silicon-32 and radium-226 seemed to show a small seasonal variation. The decay rate was ever so slightly faster in winter than in summer.
If this apparent relationship between flares and decay rates proves true, it could lead to a method of predicting solar flares prior to their occurrence, which could help prevent damage to satellites and electric grids, as well as save the lives of astronauts in space.
An effective solar flare warning system means that the threat of a massive solar flare shorting out unprotected electric grid components would be eliminated. There has been concern that a massive solar flare could cause widespread grid damage and potential a lot of human deaths if the electrical could not be restored in a timely fashion. Having a day and half of warning of a massive solar flare would allow for the electrical grid stations to be put into proper electrical grounding mode so that they would be immune to the expected solar flare.
A new study from the National Academy of Sciences outlines grim possibilities on Earth for a worst-case scenario solar storm. Modern power grids are so interconnected that a big space storm — the type expected to occur about once a century — could cause a cascade of failures that would sweep across the United States, cutting power to 130 million people or more in this country alone. The worst storms can knock out power grids by inducing currents that melt transformers. "Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures with, for example, potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply and so on," the report states.
Outages could take months to fix, the researchers say. Banks might close, and trade with other countries might halt.
"Emergency services would be strained, and command and control might be lost," write the researchers, led by Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Jenkins and Fischbach guessed that the culprits in this bit of decay-rate mischief were probably solar neutrino
Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics and an expert on the inner workings of the sun. While on a visit to the National Solar Observatory in Arizona, Sturrock was handed copies of the scientific journal articles written by the Purdue researchers.
Sturrock knew from long experience that the intensity of the barrage of neutrinos the sun continuously sends racing toward Earth varies on a regular basis as the sun itself revolves and shows a different face, like a slower version of the revolving light on a police car. His advice to Purdue: Look for evidence that the changes in radioactive decay on Earth vary with the rotation of the sun. "That's what I suggested. And that's what we have done."
Going back to take another look at the decay data from the Brookhaven lab, the researchers found a recurring pattern of 33 days. It was a bit of a surprise, given that most solar observations show a pattern of about 28 days – the rotation rate of the surface of the sun.
The explanation? The core of the sun – where nuclear reactions produce neutrinos – apparently spins more slowly than the surface we see. "It may seem counter-intuitive, but it looks as if the core rotates more slowly than the rest of the sun," Sturrock said.
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