Saturday, April 9, 2011

Solar storms are growing threat: emergency backup plan neeeded now, 02.21.11

Last Monday, February 14, one of the largest solar storms in over a decade took place. It knocked out radio transmissions in the Western Pacific, parts of Asia, and even caused some polar flights to reroute for the sake of regaining communications. It could have been much worse, though, say space weather experts. The solar flare in this picture took place last September.

Image credit: NASA.
The sun goes through a weather cycle about every 11 years, and it was long overdue to begin its more active phases. It is difficult to say for sure when to expect the next big burst of solar activity. Experts guesstimate that it will probably reach its peak in 2013 or 2014.

One way solar storms can occur is a solar flare, a large burst of radiation that sends photons careening towards Earth. They are categorized according to their intensity: C, M, and X, with the latter being the most severe. The storm of last Monday was an X 2.2, which is strong, but by no means the strongest on record. In 1859, a solar flare was recorded that was intense enough to knock out telegraph signals and even spark fires in electrical lines, but it is difficult to say exactly how strong that particular flare was; estimates are about 30 times more powerful than Monday’s storm.

Had the same magnitude of storm that occurred in 1859 happened in this day and age, though, experts say the results would be devastating. Ships and planes would be “blind” as their communications and GPS devices would go down, cell phones, radio, and televisions would no longer work… the list of damages goes on and on. Experts estimate that the initial damages would be about $2 trillion, with on-going and clean up costs being even more. For perspective, let us remind you that the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina ranged from $80-$125 billion.

According to Helena Lindberg of the Swedish Civil Contigencies Agency, the world must “start sharing expertise and connecting our systems for warning and for response.” Waiting until everything is down is too late to take action. Imagine what happens when everything that relies on a radio or satellite is suddenly “dead” or malfunctioning. They may be 93 million miles away, but with our current technology, solar storms affect us in as little as eight minutes.


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