August 6, 2012
Solar Storm Could Disable Power Grids, Communications
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Scientists are warning that power grids, communications and satellites could be knocked out by a massive solar storm within the next two years.
The sun will be reaching its peak in its 10-year solar activity cycle, putting the Earth at a greater risk from solar storms.
During this peak, scientists say there is a heightened risk that a solar storm could knock out the communication systems that we rely on.
"Governments are taking it very seriously," Mike Hapgood, a space weather specialist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, said in a statement. "These things may be very rare but when they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic."
He said solar storms are increasingly being put on national risk registers used for disaster planning, alongside other events like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
There is a 12 percent chance of a major solar storm every decade, which essentially works out to a one-in-100-year solar event.
As the sun erupts coronal mass ejections, magnetically-charged plasma is hurled out, sending tons of gas racing towards Earth.
A powerful storm can create strong currents in national power grids, and can melt transformers, effectively causing blackouts across a nation.
Satellites could also fall into the path of the storm, becoming damaged or destroyed as the particles rip through them.
Although the threat is possible, it is by far inevitable. The proper circumstances would have to work out in order for the worst to happen.
Scientists are working around-the-clock, monitoring the sun to ensure that when coronal mass ejections take place, we are made aware of them.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have forecasted that there is a 25 percent chance of polar geomagnetic storms coming in on August 7 and 8. This is the cause from an August 4 CME.
Most of the time, the worst these storms do is cause the beautiful aurora borealis to dive farther south for a better viewing. However, in 1989 a solar storm did more than just give a front-row seat to the northern lights.
A solar storm was blamed for taking out the entire power network in Quebec, Canada, leaving millions without electricity for nine hours.
The last major solar storm was an event in 1859 observed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. In just 17 hours from the observation of the eruption, the storm had already reached Earth. The aurora borealis was able to be seen as far south as the Caribbean.