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7 most valuable college majors for the future
The most valuable college majors will prepare students for a world right out a science fiction novel.
- The future of work is going to require a range of skills learned that take into account cutting edge advancements in technology and science.
- The most valuable college majors in the future will prepare students for new economies and areas of commerce.
- Mathematics, engineering and science related educational majors will become an ubiqitous feature of the new job market.
The future of work is going to be something beyond our wildest dreams. Our universities and future crop of students cannot afford to fall behind in this incredibly new and competitive environment. While fears of automation taking away all our jobs are largely unfounded and overhyped, many professions will cease to exist. But the foundations for entire new spectrums of commerce and education are already being laid.
We may be in the infancy of a new space age, where we'll need structural engineers to build Moon buildings and lawyers who can fight for their clients in new land domains outside of Earth. Personalized medicine may turn a regular old trip to the doctor more akin to a cosmetic enhancement appointment.
The students and citizens of the future world need to be prepared. These seven most valuable college majors take into account short-term job growth prospects, future relevance and need for problems we've yet to face.
Aerospace & Aeronautical Engineering
Bill Ingalls NASA via Getty Images
Aeronautics and aviation technology is a major area of growth both on this planet and off of it.
In the nearterm, expected employment rate is estimated to grow 5 percent by 2020. These degree programs focus mostly on aerodynamics and mechanics, preparing their students to either become pilots or focus on applied engineering.
Most aerospace programs have a rigorous curriculum designed to produce only the best engineers and weed out those that can't hack it. Students will be learning about thermodynamics, flight mechanics and on the space side – spacecraft design, orbital mechanics and more.New heavy hitters like billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk are all funnelling billions into rocket companies intent on exploring and colonizing our closest celestial neighbors. That's not even taking into account the booming drone business taking to the skies here on Earth and established institutions and companies like NASA and Boeing advancing into space.
The underpinnings of our greatest technology is written in the language of math. While Americans in primary schools may not be faring that well in the subject, it's still vitally important to understand as a precedent for a multitude of scientific disciplines. With an unemployment rate of only two percent and high paying salaries right out the gate, applied mathematics is a necessity in almost every field.
Someone highly skilled in mathematics can take established techniques and apply them in new ways in emerging fields. Mathematicians are highly prized in research institutes, chemical manufacturers and within start-ups.
Photo by Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images
Advertising is a dynamic field that is continually changing as new media mediums emerge into the fold. Writing ad copy once reserved for print advertisements now flows out from our smartphones and pervades the digital realm as we explore virtual worlds.
The future of augmented and virtual realities will bring about a multi-trillion dollar industry run off the back of advertising dollars.There is an expected ten percent growth by 2022. Massive companies like Alphabet and Facebook solely exist because they've created a new need and space for companies and customers alike to connect. Commerce will never tire of the marketing or ad executive.
Future electronic Mad Men will sell you trips to orbital resorts. Holographic screens will advertise the best place to get a genomic tune up. There will always be a need to advertise.
The robotics field has been active nearly since the early 20th century. Myths and the history of automatons is as old as human civilization. But the field has never more exciting than it is now. While some universities offer standalone robotics degrees – skills needed to enter the robotics field usually come from a number of different engineering degrees.
The robotics field is so vast with specialized niches growing in number everyday. Skillsets range from programming to mechanical engineering. A good background in computer science or engineering is a plus. But it really depends on what type of aspect of robotics you want to study. Even psychologists could be useful in the event our robotics become conscious, we'll need every skill set and variety of human expertise involved for our new silicon creations.
Many scientists believe that the next best programming language to learn has been with us forever – at least as far as the biosphere is concerned. DNA is the language of life and it's something we're realizing can be programmed, augmented and made greater than it already is. The future of medicine and how we view ourselves will be dependent on the next great artists… Biological artists will use the minutatie of DNA as their new pastels and paint brushes, the body as the ultimate canvas.
We may be a long way from tweaking the genomes of our new children and one day genetically engineering full grown adults, but with tools like CRISPR-Cas9 – we're on our way there. Currently bioengineers work in hospitals and build medical devices among other things. The field is as broad and varied as life's genome itself. Within the next ten years the job market is expected to grow by 7 percent.
Some people liken understanding how to code nowadays as being on par with literacy a thousand or so years ago. While we won't all need to be proficient in writing C++ and querying databases, the computer wizzes who can are the ones speaking the language of the computational zeitgeist.
There is a large need for information technology and software engineering related jobs. The foundations of our society are all online and connected. Core computational knowledge will be a necessity as we build new super computers and delve into the exciting world of quantum computing. Employment of software developers alone is projected to increase by 24 percent to the mid 2020s.
Signing of the Outerspace Treaty
As long as humanity exists there will be disputes. Lawyers are the ultimate arbiters of dispute between individuals, nationstates, and corporations. Space law is an exciting and growing new field. Diplomatic policy between the many new actors in space is a must if we're to live in a peaceful and prosperous new era.Right now the Space Treaty is our piece of old legislation that governs the great beyond. That was also written in a time when we knew nothing of our capabilities and desires to spread through the stars. These problems were reserved for far out science fiction writers, but not any longer. With NASA giving out space law grants to universities and Ronald Reagan-esque proclamations about the new Space Force coming from President Donald Trump, people are seriously thinking about our future in space. And for that, we'll always need more lawyers.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
An unconventional solution to the problem of violence.
In 2007, Mexico was catching up to its northern neighbor — at least when it came to safety. Two decades of rapidly declining violence had brought the country's murder rate to within throwing distance of the United States.
Credit: INEGI and SNSP, compiled by Mexico Crime Report (https://elcri.men/en)
Then, quite suddenly, a war broke out. Murders more than tripled, from fewer than 9,000 in 2007 to over 27,000 in 2011. In 2018, murder hit another all-time high, with over 34,000 homicides.
This year, murder has continued to climb, with June being one of the bloodiest months since the Mexican Revolution. So far, Mexico is on course for 40,000 homicides in 2019 — more than twice as many people as died in the Syrian civil war last year.
The cause of the violence is obvious: a massive war between Mexico's cartels. But the dynamics that are fueling violence south of the U.S. border are not unique to Mexico, or even to its sophisticated, transnational drug cartels. The problem of organized criminal violence afflicts nearly every country in the Americas.
In Central America, gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have fostered an epidemic of murder, extortion, and kidnapping, which is helping drive the surge of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border.
In the United States, battles between street gangs have recently caused murder to spike in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis, while notorious prison gangs, like the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Latin Kings, are effectively running the U.S. prison system. In South America, a war between rival gangs has pushed Brazil's murder rate to all-time highs.
The natural response for governments facing such violent groups is total suppression: a full-frontal assault to crush the organizations and lock up the ringleaders.
But there is a powerful argument that this strategy, while understandable, is actually responsible for making the violence worse. One country is trying a radically different approach: in 2007, Ecuador began a process of "legalizing" its street gangs, and its murder rate has fallen by 70% in the decade since.
It's easy to read too much into one anecdote from a single country, but seen in context, Ecuador's example may offer a positive contrast to the cautionary tales seen elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Mexico: Splintering Gangs, Spiraling Violence
Mexico dealt with the violence and corruption associated with drug cartels for decades. But in 2000, a major shift occurred in the country's power structure, when Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its 70-year stranglehold on Mexican politics.
Newly elected leaders from the conservative PAN party did not directly attack the cartels, but the power transition led to turnover among police, prosecutors, and military officials. With government loyalties shifting for the first time in decades, cartels began losing their corrupt protection arrangements with the government, destabilizing the relatively peaceful relationships of previous decades. Even while the murder rate continued to fall, cartel-associated killings grew from about 1,000 a year in 2003 to nearly 3,000 in 2007.
In 2007, newly inaugurated PAN President Felipe Calderon promised to crack down on the rising violence and crush the cartels. For the first time in its drug war, Mexico deployed tens of thousands of troops inside the country. The military was tasked with executing Calderon's "kingpin" or "decapitation" strategy, systematically killing or capturing cartel leadership to try to destabilize the groups.
Officially, this strategy is still working. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was just convicted and is now facing life in an American prison, after being recaptured in 2016. The leader of the Zetas Cartel was also captured last year. Dozens of other shot-callers have been killed or imprisoned in recent years.
But rather than eliminating the cartels, this policy has simply caused them to splinter and fragment into new groups. There are now more cartels than ever, waging a bloody, multi-sided war for territory across the country. Research from the University of San Diego has tied the recapture of El Chapo, in particular, to the latest surge in violence, as gangsters fight for control of the Sinaloa Cartel and its territory.
Former President Enrique Pena Nieto, who served from 2013-2018, declared last year that the military had "won" the war against the big cartels, but admitted that "this weakening brought with it small criminal groups, without there being the capacity on the local level to effectively confront them."
In cities like Acapulco, the LA Times reports, "the cartel system has collapsed completely, with historic levels of violence being driven by dozens of warring street gangs."
The churn among senior management (and the loss of reliable partners inside the state) has caused organized crime to become disorganized — but it hasn't disappeared, and the chaos has made the violence worse than ever. With more gangs fighting over the same turf, there are exponentially more opportunities for conflict, and local police are hopelessly overwhelmed.
Supply and Demand for Gangs
The theory behind suppression strategies is that the gang itself is the problem. If we get rid of the organization — capture its leaders, disrupt recruitment, seize assets, etc. — it will crumble and evaporate, because it won't be able to sustain itself. Problem solved.
But that's almost never what actually happens. In Chicago, police tried a similar zero-tolerance approach and "decapitated" the old gangs, and the result was the same as in Mexico: smaller, less organized, and more numerous gangs, fighting a dizzyingly complex war. Chicago's violence has been difficult to quell precisely because there is nobody to call a ceasefire — or rather, there are now too many people who have to negotiate and agree on it.
Brown University economist David Skarbek isn't surprised by the failure of suppression strategies, because they are based on the same kind of mistake that has been playing out in the U.S. prison system for decades. In his book The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, he argues that we have been systematically misdiagnosing why gangs exist — and so it's no wonder why our solutions keep failing.
"Gangs don't exist because there are just a lot of particularly evil people, or because there are sort of 'gang member' types, people who are inclined to be gang members," he says. Instead, paradoxically, "Gangs exist because people want more safety in a dangerous, volatile environment — and they want more regular access to contraband in illicit markets."
In other words, gangs aren't a "supply-side" problem — it's not about the group itself, it's about the social and economic dynamics that create the demand for gangs in the first place. In violent, risky situations (like overcrowded prisons), people form gangs because they need things that the authorities cannot give them (like guaranteed safety) or will not (like cell phones and illegal drugs).
To facilitate these services, gangs have also created rules to regulate the black market and resolve disputes in private. "The gangs have some pretty clear rules about when you can use violence against other prisoners. You can't just choose to assault another prisoner," Skarbek says.
In violent, risky situations, people form gangs because they need things that the authorities cannot give them.
"They'll organize a controlled setting— maybe in a cell at a time when correctional officers aren't going to be around. They'll allow interpersonal violence to take place, but they'll regulate it in a way so that it's less likely to destabilize the prisoner community."
Spontaneous, public acts of violence often lead to prison-wide lockdowns, and that interferes with the gangs' business. "They can't sell drugs or turn a profit during periods of lockdown. They have a private financial incentive to reduce large scale disruptions, large scale rioting, and so that gives them the incentive to want to govern these interactions."
"I think of (gangs) as the symptom of a disease, rather than the underlying disease itself. The underlying disease is forcing people into dangerous situations where there's insufficient resources or governance."
Skarbek has no illusions about the brutality that these gangs are willing to inflict, both inside and out of prison. "There's much to be worried about with gangs," he says. "But I think of them as the symptom of a disease, rather than the underlying disease itself. The underlying disease is forcing people into dangerous situations where there's insufficient resources or governance."
Abuela Needs a Sicario
In his book Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, the journalist Tom Wainwright tells the story of Rosa, "a barrel-shaped seventy-year-old who cannot be taller than about four feet six," who works as a maid in a suburb of Mexico City.
"In between mopping floors and making blueberry pancakes," Wainwright recounts, "she is plotting a murder."
Rosa had a problem that is increasingly common throughout Mexico: a pair of men had for years been killing, robbing, and stealing from her community with absolute impunity.
Three months ago, one of her sixteen grandchildren came home with her husband to find two burglars in the middle of ransacking their house. The robbers escaped but later came back to give the husband a vicious beating with an axe handle, as a warning not to report them. "He still walks like this," Rosa says, mimicking the awkward swing of his fractured arms.
… The police are doing nothing about all this. "Honestly, I don't trust them," Rosa says. "If the authorities don't do anything, what are we left with? One can't live like this anymore. We can't live with the fear that at any moment they can enter our house and kill us."
So Rosa and her neighbors began raising money to hire a hitman (sicario) to take out the robbers. "Rosa's story may be horrifying, but it is not as unusual as it sounds," according to Wainwright. "Many organized criminal groups provide this sort of 'protection.'"
Drug dealers, for instance, cannot go to the police if they are robbed, cheated, or attacked, and so they tend to band together to defend themselves and their market — and they aren't as patient as your average abuela.
This desperate grandmother was hardly a hardened criminal, but her case illustrates exactly the kind of incentives faced by people who find themselves in dangerous, poor, violent situations — within a prison, neighborhood, or even a country — where the formal authorities cannot or will not provide security.
Drug dealers, for instance, cannot go to the police if they are robbed, cheated, or attacked, and so they tend to band together to defend themselves and their market — and they aren't as patient as your average abuela.
Now, after years of rising insecurity, corruption, and chaos, ordinary citizens are also succumbing to the logic of gangs and forming armed groups for protection. In the Mexican state of Guerro, for example, private "self-defense groups" (effectively, vigilante gangs) have banded together into a 11,000-member paramilitary to defend their towns and fight the cartels. But this third power structure, outside both the government and the cartels, risks pouring new fuel on the conflict and further undermining the state — and, as Colombia has shown, paramilitaries are no more accountable or less susceptible to corruption than other groups.
A Different Path
Ultimately, the way to defeat gangs is to eliminate the demand for them by providing reliable security inside prisons, schools, and the community at large. This isn't easy to do, and the specifics will differ depending on the place and purpose of the gang.
Unfortunately for Mexico, there is little sign that newly inaugurated President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known as AMLO) is changing course. In July, he inaugurated a new 70,000-strong militarized "National Guard" to try to quell cartel violence and circumvent corruption in the army and police. The new force may provide a brief boost to security, but it won't fundamentally change the dynamics that have corrupted the local police, federales, and army before it.
Instead of hoping for a miraculous breakthrough from brute force, governments should look for ways to mitigate the worst aspects of gangs. In his wide-ranging study Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America, the political scientist Benjamin Lessing argues that American governments need to abandon their tough-on-crime, maximum pressure strategy toward gangs and embrace a "conditional repression" strategy.
Conditional repression means offering a deal to the gangs (whether explicitly or implicitly): "We have a ton of firepower, but on a normal day, we're not going to let it all loose on you — unless you do X, Y, or Z"— for example, killing civilians, children, or police, or having shootouts in public.
Instead of hoping for a miraculous breakthrough from brute force, governments should look for ways to mitigate the worst aspects of gangs.
Lessing argues that "brute-force repression generates incentives for cartels to fight back, while policies that condition repression on cartel violence can effectively deter cartel-state conflict."
The downside of this approach is that it tacitly admits that we are not "doing everything we can" to stop organized crime. The upside is that, because police pressure is not always 100% maxed out, there is a significant deterrent available to discourage open violence and channel cartel operations into less destructive paths.
Conditional repression tells cartel leaders that, at any given time, the police have the power to make their life much worse than it is. Maximum repression tells the cartels they have nothing to lose by attacking the state.
There is evidence from across Latin America that the government can also use this privileged position to negotiate and enforce truces between rival cartels, creating an incentive for the cartels to stop fighting each other. In 2012, the government of El Salvador (assisted by the Catholic Church) negotiated a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, which cut the country's murder rate in half in a single year.
Unfortunately, that truce fell apart two years later when the government minister responsible for it was removed from office. Brazil's recent surge in murder has been blamed on a gang truce from 1997 suddenly falling apart in the middle of 2016, as violence spilled from the country's dangerously overcrowded prisons into the streets.
"Brute-force repression generates incentives for cartels to fight back, while policies that condition repression on cartel violence can effectively deter cartel-state conflict."
In Ecuador, the government seems to have embarked on a more successful and durable strategy of conditional repression, and the result has been a massive reduction in violence. By 2018, the homicide rate in Ecuador was nearly as low as in the United States.
Sources: FBI, UNODC, media reports
Starting in 2007, Ecuador made a number of radical changes to its law enforcement strategy, by doubling its spending on security and launching an ambitious program of "legalization" for the country's street gangs, including notorious groups like the Latin Kings and STAE.
The program allows gang members to register with the state to receive benefits, including training and job placement. Members are not asked to give up their gang affiliation — to the contrary, the goal is to bring in current gang members and transform the gang into a more benign social group — but they are expected to abide by the conditions of the program.
According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), "legalized" gang members understand the deal: "Our leaders told us that we were no longer allowed to go to war… After that, you know, the government began to give us job opportunities. So, if we began to act violently again, the government would take away what they had already begun to give us, so what we did was to reciprocate the government's help (to ensure the relationship continued)."
The main benefits the gang received from "legalizing" was different treatment by the police. According to the report,
Before legalization, if the STAE (gang) got together to hold a meeting in a park, the police would inevitably arrive to arrest and physically abuse them. … Legalization was primarily a reinstatement of the right to the city… They are no longer stopped and frisked or targeted for wearing their gang colors in public spaces. Many noted that this was perhaps the biggest victory of legalization.
But another key aspect of the program was conditional on keeping the street gangs away from the cartels, which historically do not operate directly in Ecuador, but launder money and smuggle drugs through the country.
"This is one of the most important aspects of the Ecuadorian approach," the report argues. "Mano dura (the heavy hand) for cartels but inclusion towards gangs. The government actively and consciously strove to avoid gangs working for cartels (especially due to the proximity of Peru and Colombia, both major drug-trafficking hubs), hence they aggressively pursued organized crime networks while applying policies of social inclusion to street gangs."
The legalized gang members understand that the arrangement is precarious, and it could fall apart if a new president is elected. According to the IADB, their goal right now is to "institutionalize the legalization process and give it a sustainability and legitimacy that would be impervious to political shifts."
It's not clear how much of Ecuador's decline in murders is due to random factors, more and better policing, or the new strategy on gangs. No one should imagine that Ecuador's gang problem has vanished, and it would be facile to suggest that Mexico should simply import this program wholesale, applying it to criminal organizations that are very different than Ecuador's relatively small street gangs.
But at a high level, the difference in approaches is worth noting. Ecuador's policy admits that as long as there is a demand for gangs, they will continue to exist, and they must be dealt with, rather than blindly smashed. By contrast, Mexico seems determined to follow the supply-side, mano dura policies that have failed across the Americas.
In Making Peace in Drug Wars, Lessing argues for a pragmatic approach, managing the problem of criminal gangs without chasing the illusion of eliminating it overnight:
It is critical to reframe the policy problem, from eradicating drugs or crushing the cartels or punishing dastardly traffickers, to minimizing the harms produced by the drug trade… Reframing the problem ultimately implies "diplomatic recognition": accepting that as long as there is demand for drugs, there will be traffickers, and orienting repressive policy to favor the sorts of traffickers we would like to have.
That is a hard sell, especially for voters that are justly horrified and outraged by the crimes these groups have perpetrated. What Ecuador might ultimately show us is that it is possible for a democratic government to increase basic public safety, while incentivizing less bad behavior from its gangs. The results have been a rare positive example in one of the most violent regions of the world. Whether the rest of the region can learn from its example remains to be seen.
While we can see many solar storms coming, some are "stealthy." A new study shows how to detect them.
- "Stealth" solar storms are difficult to detect before they are near Earth.
- The use of various imaging techniques from multiple angles allowed researchers to detect these stealth storms earlier than ever.
- Not seeing one coming could have disastrous effects on our electronic infrastructure.
Solar storms are a collection of disturbances on the sun that influence space weather. They include things like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a large release of plasma in the solar wind. They can affect Earth in a number of ways, such as by increasing the number of particles that hit the Earth's magnetic field causing an aurora or — in severe cases — by disrupting technology and radio transmissions.
Most of the time, scientists can see storms as they occur on the sun. Information about the impact on Earth can be gathered a few days before it is likely to reach us. However, in as many as 20 percent of CMEs, there is little to no noticeable activity on the sun to give us an early warning. These "stealth" CMEs can have a huge impact on space weather but have proven difficult to spot until they have nearly arrived.
Luckily, a new study published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences reports on new ways to detect so-called stealth solar storms long before they hit Earth.
The benefits of looking at the Sun
Unlike regular CMEs, stealth CMEs do not tend to give typical warning signs like clear dimming or brightening of the surface of the sun. Instead, they seem to form in a higher region of the sun's atmosphere called the corona than is typical. Unfortunately, watching for changes in the corona does not always give scientists the information they need to predict where a mass of plasma is moving.
In this study, the researchers took advantage of knowing the approximate origins of four stealth CMEs that were determined by data collected from Earth and the STEREO satellite, which was at a different angle with respect to the sun. The four CMEs differed in angle and intensity and occurred at different points in the solar cycle.
By using different imaging processes, subtle shifts in the upper corona were identified in each of the four cases examined. Most of the events also originated near areas with particularly strong magnetic fields.
The authors suggest that the small brightening and dimming effects they observed could be used to detect these CMEs in the future using similar methods. While they admit that the study does not provide a way to detect these CMEs before they form, they conclude that "identifying the source region of a stealth CME represents a first step toward providing more reliable predictions."
A bad day for Earth
Solar storms are not merely of academic interest. Large storms have occurred before, and the damage they can cause is potentially devastating. A strong solar storm in 1989 caused blackouts in Quebec and disrupted broadcasts of Radio Free Europe. That storm has nothing on the "Carrington Event" of 1859, however.
That solar storm was incredibly powerful, producing auroras visible in places like Queensland, Australia and the Caribbean. The auroras over New England were so bright that the residents could read newspapers by their light. Telegraph systems fried as a result of the huge amount of electromagnetic energy added to the Earth's magnetosphere, occasionally starting fires as they spontaneously sparked. Some telegraph operators reported being able to operate their machines without connecting them to wires.
A storm estimated to be just as powerful as the Carrington Event occurred in 2012, but the plasma it ejected narrowly missed Earth. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total cost of such an event to the United States today could be more than two trillion dollars. It would also cause damage that could take years to fully repair. It goes without saying that having large portions of our electric systems and technology fried with little time to prepare might also make things unpleasant for a lot of people.
Smaller storms hit Earth once every three years, often causing damage to systems that use electricity. Larger events are rarer, but not as rare as we would hope. A study from a few years ago calculated that the odds of a Carrington level event occurring is 12 percent per decade.
May the odds be in our favor
With odds and consequences like that, the ability to see a "stealth" solar storm coming might prove to be one of the most important tools humanity ever discovered.
Given enough warning, precautions can be taken to help minimize the damage to electronics from a large solar storm. For example, satellites can be moved out of harm's way, power grids can be primed to avoid being overloaded, and transformers can be taken offline to keep them from being destroyed.
If we fail to see the next Carrington Event coming, it might be a while before you can read the article we'll write about it.