Storm Could be Catastrophic on Earth, Study Concludes
A new study from the National Academy of Sciences outlines grim
possibilities on Earth for a worst-case scenario solar storm.
Damage to power grids and other communications systems could be
catastrophic, the scientists conclude, with effects leading to a
potential loss of governmental control of the situation.
The prediction is based in part on major
solar storm in 1859 caused
telegraph wires to short out in the United States and Europe,
igniting widespread fires. It was perhaps the worst in the past
200 years, according to the new study, and with the advent of
modern power grids and satellites, much more is at risk.
"A contemporary repetition of the  event would cause
significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social
and economic disruptions," the researchers conclude.
'Command and control might be lost'
When the sun is in the active phase of its
11-year cycle, it can unleash powerful
magnetic storms that
disable satellites, threaten astronaut safety, and even disrupt
communication systems on Earth. The worst storms can knock out
power grids by inducing currents that melt transformers.
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 new report
Such widespread power outages, though expected to be a rare
possibility, would affect other vital systems.
"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.
"Whether it is terrestrial catastrophes or extreme space weather
incidents, the results can be devastating to modern societies
that depend in a myriad of ways on advanced technological
systems," Baker said in a statement released with the report.
Solar storms have had significant effects in modern time:
"Obviously, the sun is Earth's life blood," said Richard Fisher,
director of the Heliophysics division at NASA. "To mitigate
possible public safety issues, it is vital that we better
understand extreme space weather events caused by the sun's
"Space weather can produce solar storm electromagnetic fields
that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines,
causing wide-spread blackouts and affecting communication cables
that support the Internet," the report states. "Severe space
weather also produces solar energetic particles and the
dislocation of the Earth's radiation belts, which can damage
satellites used for commercial communications, global
positioning and weather forecasting."
Rush to prepare
The race is on for better forecasting abilities,
as the next peak in solar activity isexpected
to come around 2012. While the
sun is in a lull now, activity can flare up at any moment, and
severe space weather -- how severe, nobody knows -- will ramp up
a year or two before the peak.
Some scientists expect the next peak to bring more severe events
than other recent peaks.
"A catastrophic failure of commercial and government
infrastructure in space and on the ground can be mitigated
through raising public awareness, improving vulnerable
infrastructure and developing advanced forecasting
capabilities," the report states. "Without preventive actions or
plans, the trend of increased dependency on modern space-weather
sensitive assets could make society more vulnerable in the
The report was commissioned and funded by NASA. Experts from
around the world in industry, government and academia
participated. It was released this week.