Coming Solar Storms Could Be 20 Times Worse Than Katrina

Saturday, June 12, 2010
By Paul Martin

Michael Bolen

Remember the electromagnetic pulse or “pinch,” featured in “Ocean’s 11?” Well imagine that level of disruption and apply it to the entire planet. That’s the threat solar storms pose to our increasingly digital world.

According to solar scientists who gathered Tuesday to discuss the danger confronting Earth’s satellites and electronics, the Sun is entering a period of increased activity.

“The Sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss,” said Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

Solar storms occur when eruptions from the Sun spew charged particles and radiation in the direction of Earth. But just like Earth’s climate, the Sun follows certain long-term patterns. Solar activity usually follows an 11-year cycle, and we are now entering a period of increased activity.

The storms are capable of severely damaging satellites and electrical grids and of disrupting communications and navigation systems by altering the Earth’s ionosphere. The harsh radiation could even kill astronauts on the International Space Station.

According to The National Academy of Sciences (NOA), a century-class solar storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Luckily, the damage can be minimized if we know a storm is coming. Satellites can be placed in safe mode and transformers can be deactivated to prevent power surges.

That’s why monitoring solar weather is so important. In a world becoming more reliant on technology every day, world leaders can’t afford to ignore the threat space weather poses to the planet.

NASA and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are already taking up the challenge in the United States.

NASA has many spacecrafts monitoring the sun’s activity, including the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which was recently in the news after capturing stunning high-definition images of the Sun.

Our best tool, however, may be a much older spacecraft called the Advanced Composition Explorer. Launched in 1997, the ACE is positioned between the Sun and Earth and detects gusts of solar wind, radiation and Coronal Mass Ejections. It is particularly useful because it gives the Earth as much as 30-minutes warning, giving plenty of time for authorities to institute counter-measures.

Unfortunately, the monitoring devices themselves can be susceptible to the very storms they watch. Ten years ago in July 2000, during the Sun’s last period of increased activity, a massive solar flare and CME partially blinded the ACE. The storm was so intense it caused Aurora light shows, usually only seen in the far North, as far south as Texas.

Awareness about the Earth’s vulnerability is clearly growing. This is the fourth year running that scientists, politicians, policymakers and the media have come together in Washington, D.C. to discuss space weather. This year the discussions focused on new ways to protect critical infrastructure.

“I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather,” said Fisher. “We take this very seriously indeed.”

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