J. D. Heyes
Feb 14, 2013
Solar activity has dramatically increased in recent years, causing consternation and concern among state and federal emergency planners who are worried about the occurrence of a solar “superstorm” that would cause untold damage to power and communication grids.
Adding to that concern is a new report by a group of experts in Britain who say such a storm is not only likely to occur in the short term, but is a near-certainty, given the historical cycle of such solar events.
The report about extreme space weather from the Royal Academy of Engineering in London said major solar superstorms generally occur, on average, once every 150-200 years. The group went on to note that the last major solar storm took place in 1859, long before the establishment of modern electrical grids and a century before space travel and satellites.
And while there have been no such solar events in the so-called space age, the team said, our highly technological world is much more vulnerable than at any time in the past.
The big one is coming…
“The general consensus is that a solar superstorm is inevitable, a matter not of ‘if’ but ‘when?’,” said a report about extreme space weather by a group of experts at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, The Independent newspaper reported.
Over the past 50-odd years, the team said there have been several “near misses,” when an explosive “coronal mass ejection” of energized matter from the sun has spewed into space, bypassing the earth only narrowly. In 1989, for instance, the experts said a relatively minor solar storm disabled several key electrical transformers in Canada, causing scores of blackouts.
“Similar solar storms significantly increased atmospheric radiation levels in 1956, 1972, 1989 and 2003,” according to the experts, the paper reported.
Prof. Paul Cannon, chairman of the royal academy’s solar storm working group, said governments should establish a space weather board to oversee and implement policies and procedures aimed at minimizing the impact of such storms.
“A solar superstorm will be a challenge but not cataclysmic,” Cannon said. “The two challenges for government are the wide spectrum of technologies affected today and the emergence of unexpected vulnerabilities as technology evolves.”
He continued: “Our message is, ‘Don’t panic, but do prepare.’ A solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it. Many steps have already been taken to minimize the impact of solar storms on current technology… We anticipate that the UK can further minimize the impact.”
Scientists note that minor solar storms strike the earth regularly, but they are far less powerful than the superstorm of 1859, an event which was named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington. That event was the last true solar superstorm, say experts.
The engineers say a similar event today would severely strain the electrical grids, as transformers are particularly sensitive and vulnerable to dramatic power surges. Such superstorms would also degrade the performance of satellites, GPS navigation, aviation and could even hamper cell phone networks, “particularly the new 4G network, which relies on GPS satellites for timing information,” the Independent reported.
Surviving the onslaught could cost trillions
Keith Ryden, an aeronautical and space engineer at England’s Surrey University, said a future superstorm would put a damper on our most-used technology.
“Satellites are certainly in the front line of a superstorm. They are part of our infrastructure and we have concerns about their survival in a solar superstorm,” he told the paper.
Scientists have said solar eruptions are set to peak this year.
“The concern of a strong solar flare in the direction of Earth is legit. The possibility that such a Sun burst could hit Earth could cause extensive damage as it would charge-up our electrical equipment and destroy them,” Prof. Jose Lopez, a physicist at Seton Hall University, told Fox News in January.
The cost would be in the trillions of dollars, Lopez estimated.
“Given the explosion of delicate electronic devices … we have become very vulnerable to solar outbursts,” added Biola University physicist John A. Bloom.
This article was posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 6:21 am