Powerful Solar Storm Could Be Devastating for our High Tech Society

January 10, 2009

(ChattahBox) — A new study from the National Academy of Sciences, commissioned and funded by NASA, reveals a grave threat for Earth if a worst-case scenario solar storm occurs. The race is on for better forecasting abilities, as the next peak in solar activity is expected to come around 2012. 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.

In essence, the report, which can be downloaded in pdf here (free registration required) says that sooner or later there will be a solar storm much more powerful than any seen so far in the age of high technology. Such events have occurred in the past, and the prediction is somewhat based on a major solar storm in 1859, but as the human race then had very basic electrical power grids (or none at all) and made no use of satellites, it didn’t matter.

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. Even going back to 2003, 10 major solar flares over a two-week period, knocking out two Earth-orbiting satellites and crippling an instrument aboard a Mars orbiter. 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 concludes.  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.


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