Just when it seems like there’s
more than enough to worry about on Earth, a NASA-funded
study warns extreme
space weather could
have catastrophic consequences on everything from power
grids to pacemakers.
Routine activities such as
talking on a cell phone, using the Internet and getting
money from an ATM machine could suddenly halt over a large
part of the globe—and governments could be powerless to
control the situation.
The results "could be
devastating" to societies dependant on advanced
technological systems, said Daniel Baker, professor and
director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics
at the University of Colorado in Boulder and chair of the
National Academy of Sciences panel that prepared the report.
Blame it on Solar
Cycle 24, an
11-year-period of magnetic storms and strong solar winds.
Because they generate intense magnetic fields, solar storms
can have significant effects on technology on
Earth—potentially interfering with everything from power
grids, communications cables and satellite communications to
GPS, cell phones, ATMs and even medical devices such as
Solar Cycle 24 began early
last year when a reverse polarity sunspot appeared in the
sun’s Northern Hemisphere. A sunspot is an area of highly
organized magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. The
number of sunspots and solar storms will gradually increase
in the next few years, reaching a maximum by 2012.
Scientists have regarded space
weather as a potential problem since a major solar storm in
1859 caused telegraph wires to short out in the United
States and Europe, igniting widespread fires. A similar
storm today would have "significantly more extensive (and
possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions," the
NASA acknowledges extreme
solar eruptions can have "severe consequences for
communications, power grids and other technology on Earth."
It authorized the study to quantify the potential economic
effects of solar storms. "The sun is Earth's life blood,"
said Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics division
at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, noting that it's
"vital" to understand extreme space weather to mitigate
possible public safety issues.