APL Colloquium

December 7, 2007

Colloquium Topic: The Superstorm of 1859: Learning from the Past to Anticipate Future Consequences

Between August 28-September 2, 1859 one of the most severe space weather events in the last 500 years caused public panic, telegraph outages spanning continents, and turned night into crimson daylight for several hours. During the last 10 years, the physical circumstances of this solar 'superstorm' event have been systematically uncovered from a variety of historical archeology and modern computer-based calculations. By some measures, such as solar proton fluence, this single event was equal to the sum of all the major solar storms during the last 10 years. In this talk, I will be presenting an overview of this event within the context of the previous record of solar storms since 1859, and recent efforts to extrapolate future economic impacts from similar-scale storms. One of the most important lessons-learned is that the current era of commercial satellite activity has occurred during what appears to be an anomalously weak era of significant space weather events. Moreover, the Golden Age of space weather reporting came to an end in the 1950's, so that the level of public understanding and interest in space weather is at an historical low. In the event that Cycle 24 brings with it a superstorm of the scope of 1859, the economic impact could reasonably be expected to be severe. Through Monte Carlo modeling of one element of this impact, commercial geosynchronous satellites, Odenwald and Green (2007: Space Weather Journal) have attempted to estimate the potential satellite survivability and economic losses from a superstorm. In this talk, I will discuss the results of these models, and the relatively 'good news' that these simulations suggest.

Colloquium Speaker: Sten Odenwald

Dr. Sten Odenwald, an award-winning astronomer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, received his Ph.D in Astronomy from Harvard University in 1981. He has worked extensively in the area of infrared astronomy using data from IRAS and COBE satellites, as well as ground-based data from the 2MASS survey. His research work has involved the co-discovery and investigation of the cosmic infrared background and the 'first light' from infant galaxies. Since 1998, he has worked in the field of education for various NASA missions such as IMAGE, Hinode and Themis. This solar and space physics-related education for NASA has led him into the area of space weather research where he has been currently involved in studies of solar superstorms and modeling their economic consequences. He is the author of books such as The Astronomy Cafe, The 23rd Cycle and Patterns in the Void, and Back to the Astronomy Café. Sten hosts an award-winning web site called the Astronomy Café, and has written numerous articles for The Washington Post, Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines on cosmology. He has appeared on a number of radio talk shows including National Public Radio, David Levy's Let's Talk Stars, and Earth and Sky Radio, as well as NASA TV programs such as CONNECT, Destination:Tomorrow and The SciFiles. He is the recipient of the 1999 Goddard Space Flight Center Excellence in Outreach Award and the Popular Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society, Solar Physics Division.