Space weather could wreak havoc in gadget-driven world

Feb 20, 2011 by Kerry Sheridan
A NASA image of an erupting solar flare. A geomagnetic space storm sparked by a solar eruption like the one that flared toward Earth Tuesday is bound to strike again and could wreak havoc on Earth

A geomagnetic space storm sparked by a solar eruption like the one that flared toward Earth Tuesday is bound to strike again and could wreak havoc across the gadget-happy modern world, experts say.

Contemporary society is increasingly vulnerable to space weather because of our dependence on satellite systems for synchronizing computers, airline navigation, telecommunications networks and other electronic devices.

A potent solar storm could disrupt these technologies, scorch satellites, crash stock markets and cause power outages that last weeks or months, experts said Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting.

The situation will only get more dire because the solar cycle is heading into a period of more intense activity in the coming 11 years.

"This is not a matter of if, it is simply a matter of when and how big," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco.

"The last time we had a maximum in the solar cycle, about 10 years ago, the world was a very different place. Cell phones are now ubiquitous; they were certainly around (before) but we didn't rely on them for so many different things," she said.

"Many things that we take for granted today are so much more prone to the process of space weather than was the case in the last solar maximum."

The experts admitted that currently, little that can be done to predict such a storm, much less shield the world's electrical grid by doing anything other shutting off power to some of the vulnerable areas until the danger passes.

"Please don't panic," said Stephan Lechner, director of the European Commission Joint Research Center, drawing laughter from the scientists and journalists in the audience. "Overreaction will make the situation worse."

The root of the world's vulnerability in the modern age is global positioning systems, or GPS devices, that provide navigational help but also serve as time synchronizers for computer networks and electronic equipment, he said.

"GPS helped and created a new dependency," said Lechner, noting that the technology's influence extends to aerospace and defense, digital broadcast, financial services and government agencies.

In Europe alone, there are 200 separate telecommunication operators, and "nothing is standardized," he said.

"We are far from understanding all the implications here," he said.

World governments are hurrying to work on strategies for cooperation and information sharing ahead of the next anticipated storm, though forecasters admit they are not sure when that may occur.

"Actually we cannot tell if there is going to be a big storm six months from now but we can tell when conditions are ripe for a storm to take place," said the European Space Agency's Juha-Pekka Luntama.

On Tuesday at 0156 GMT, a huge solar eruption, the strongest in about five years, sent a torrent of charged plasma particles hurtling toward the Earth at a speed of 560 miles (900 kilometers) per second.

The force of the Class X flash, the most powerful of all solar events, lit up auroras and disrupted some radio communications, but the effects were largely confined to the northern latitudes.

"Actually it turned out that we were well protected this time. The magnetic fields were aligned parallel so not much happened," said Luntama.

"In another case things might have been different."

Space storms are not new. The first major solar flare was recorded by British astronomer Richard Carrington in 1859.

Other solar geomagnetic storms have been observed in recent decades. One huge solar flare in 1972 cut off long-distance telephone communication in the midwestern state of Illinois, NASA said.

Another similar flare in 1989 "provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission" and caused blackouts across the Canadian province of Quebec, the US space agency said.

A panel of NASA-assembled scientists issued a report in 2009 that said a powerful solar flare could overwhelm high-voltage transformers with electrical currents and short-circuit energy grids.

Such a catastrophic event could cost the United States alone up to two trillion dollars in repairs in the first year -- and it could take up to 10 years to fully recover, the report said.

Explore further: NASA rocket has six minutes to study solar heating

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User comments : 12

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fuviss_co_uk
4 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2011
We must go into optics in our hi-tech gadgets. I dont know if i am right, but maybe some experts are here and can verify that statement ?
emenon
1 / 5 (5) Feb 20, 2011
Starting to look like those Mayans were on to something.
jjoensuu
1 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2011
But it looks like the only damage it could cause would be to the electronics. People would be affected yes, but hard to see a real "end of the world" scenario from this.
omatumr
1 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2011
Congratulations, NASA!

Yes indeed, "Space weather could wreak havoc in gadget-driven world."

That is why NASA should have taken seriously experimental data that falsified the obsolete model of a hydrogen-filled Sun many years ago:

1. "Solar abundance of the elements"
tinyurl.com/224kz4

2. "Isotopic ratios in Jupiter confirm intra-solar diffusion"
lpi.usra.edu/meetings/metsoc98/pdf/5011.pdf

3. "Why the Model of a Hydrogen-Filled Sun Is Obsolete"
arxiv.org/pdf/astro-ph/0410569v1

4. "Neutron Repulsion"
arxiv.org/pdf/1102.1499v1

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
winthrom
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
Electro Magnetic Pulse brought to you by Mother Nature (note Mother is also only 1/2 a word). The ground systems for sea and air navigation are drying up: LORAN is gone, GPS is the replacement. No-one reads a map anymore, just use GPS to get there. Lots of pilots "just use GPS to get there" too. Precision landings under instrument conditions, use WAAS (enhanced GPS) folks. Scared? I am!
Newbeak
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
There is a plan in the works to launch an early warning system to give some warning of an approaching solar eruption called STEREO (Google: "The Sun in Stereo - Early Warning of Solar Storms").Power could be shut off if a head's up was received in time,thus saving critical grid components. Maybe everyone should start building faraday cages around their computer rooms.If the alarm was sounded,you could put all your cellphones,laptops,and other portable expensive electronics in the cage.Your car might be toast,however-the EMP would fry it's electronics.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2011
I think the biggest issues are the satelites, satelite dishes and cellphone masts.
Newbeak
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
I think the biggest issues are the satelites, satelite dishes and cellphone masts.


Good point.I was going to mention them,but forgot.I hope the critical satellites have some degree of EMP hardening..
yyz
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
"There is a plan in the works to launch an early warning system to give some warning of an approaching solar eruption called STEREO"

The article you cite is describing the STEREO mission which launched in October 2006:

h
ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STEREO

The mission was in the news recently when the two spacecraft achieved a point their mission when they were separated 180 degrees in their solar orbits. You must've missed it. :^)

"3-D" coverage of the Sun should be possible over the rise to solar maximum in 2013.
Newbeak
not rated yet Feb 22, 2011
"There is a plan in the works to launch an early warning system to give some warning of an approaching solar eruption called STEREO"

The article you cite is describing the STEREO mission which launched in October 2006:

h
ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STEREO

The mission was in the news recently when the two spacecraft achieved a point their mission when they were separated 180 degrees in their solar orbits. You must've missed it. :^)

"3-D" coverage of the Sun should be possible over the rise to solar maximum in 2013.

Thanks,Toronto: I didn't notice the date on that article.
seb
not rated yet Feb 22, 2011
Hmm.. isn't this pretty much very old news by now? Seems like every time there's some solar activity this story or something like it gets dragged out and posted all over the internet. Ok, we get it already.

Newbeak
not rated yet Feb 22, 2011
Hmm.. isn't this pretty much very old news by now? Seems like every time there's some solar activity this story or something like it gets dragged out and posted all over the internet. Ok, we get it already.

The point is,when we experience the next major solar storm,it will cause enormous damage worldwide.How would YOU cope with no power,no communication,no modern amenities for as much as several months? Major solar eruptions HAVE occurred in the recent past,and listening to the experts,we due for another big one.Unlike past storms,we are now more reliant than ever on vulnerable electronics.What really scares me is that governments and business seem quite blase about the whole thing.