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Scientists Warn that a Massive Solar Storm Could Wreak Havoc on World's Electrical Gear

The Sun and its massive bursts of electromagnetic radiation thrown off as solar flares dominate space weather much like hurricanes dominate fall weather concerns for the East Coast of the United States. The Sun has a cycle of activity that usually lasts about a donze years--and right now, the latest quiet period appears to be coming to a close.

A forum at the AAAS Annual Meeting focused on these issues and Science’s Robert Coontz caught up with panelist Thomas Bogdan, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, in this Science Podcast.

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In Bogdan’s view, the Valentine’s Day solar flare that generated worldwide news coverage wasn’t so unusual. “These were not the largest of storms,” Bogdan said. “I think they garnered a lot of attention because they were the largest storms we’ve seen in about four years.”

Earth is protected from much of the Sun’s radiation by its magnetic field, but sensitive electronic equipment can be vulnerable. That is particularly true of satellites whose electronic circuits can be fried if they are not adequately protected from the energy surges. Scientists are warning that a large solar flare could be “a global Katrina.”

It could affect radio signals, the GPS navigation in your car, and smart bombs directed at targets in Afghanistan. Electrical systems in high-flying commercial aircraft also are vulnerable and passengers could be subjected to cancer-causing radiation. A large flare might even shut down the electric power grid.

Bogdan said a large sun storm might cause up to $2 trillion in damage. Many systems have been engineered to minimize the damaging effects of this radiation. But in some instances those electrical systems would have to be shut down in order to prevent their being destroyed. And that is where his agency comes in. It monitors the Sun in order to give adequate warning about potentially disruptive activity.

“This is not a matter of if--it is simply a matter of when and how big,” said NOAA’s Jane Lubchenco in news coverage in the Toronto Star. It noted that a 1989 solar storm forced Hydro Quebec to cut electrical power to 6 million people for nine hours, while another storm later in the year closed the Toronto Stock Exchange.

While there can be up to several days warning of large-scale solar activity, the last line of detection is a satellite above the Earth that will give 20 minutes notice. The Independent, in London, quoted Bogdan as saying that satellite is 14 years old; that keeps him awake at night “worrying about whether the satellite would be running next morning when I get up.” 

Americans had to go online to find news coverage of the issue. Aolnews turned to Helena Lindberg with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency on the potential effects of a major solar storm. “I’m not talking about days or weeks,” she said, “but several months without electric power, blackouts across large regions of Europe and the US.”

Wired fed its techie readers the most extensive explanation of why the February 14 flare was a comparative dud. Short answer: The burst of energy was parallel to the Earth’s magnet field and was more easily deflected than if it had come from a different angle.

Gawker lives and dies on attitude so it was no surprise that Max Read closed his short article by noting that power companies can “harden” their transformers by adding capacitors to soak up surges, while the average reader “can prepare by making a bimonthly sacrifice to the sun-god Tonatiuh.” Read said he would be retreating to his cabin in the woods. 

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Bob Roehr

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