June 15, 2010

2013 Solar Storm Could Create Widespread Panic

NASA has warned that the Earth could endure a once-in-a-generation "space storm," bringing widespread power blackouts and leaving people without critical communications signals for a long time.

National power grids could overheat and air travel could be disrupted while electronic systems, navigation devices and major satellites could stop working after the Sun reaches its maximum power in a few years.

Senior space agency scientists say the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels of magnetic energy from solar flares when the Sun awakes "from a deep slumber" around 2013.

NASA said in its warning that the super storm would hit like "a bolt of lightning" and could cause catastrophic consequences for the world's health, emergency services and national security unless precautions are taken.

The scientists say it could damage everything from iPods and Sat Navs to emergency services' systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices

The storm could leave a multi-billion dollar damage bill and "potentially devastating" problems for governments.

"We know it is coming but we don't know how bad it is going to be," Dr Richard Fisher, the director of NASA's Heliophysics division, told The Daily Telegraph in an interview.

"It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world.

"Large areas will be without electricity power and to repair that damage will be hard as that takes time."

Dr Fisher added: "Systems will just not work. The flares change the magnetic field on the earth that is rapid and like a lightning bolt. That is the solar affect."

NASA scientists, policy-makers, researchers and government officials attended a "space weather" conference in Washington DC last week and was told of similar warnings.

Fisher's comments are the most comprehensive warnings from NASA to date, although other scientists have previously told of the dangers of the storm.

Fisher said the storm will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of over 10,000 Fahrenheit, which occurs only a few times over a person's life time.

Every 22 years the Sun's magnetic energy cycle peaks while the number of sunspots hits a maximum level every 11 years.

Fisher, who has been a NASA scientist for 20 years, said these events would combine in 2013 to produce huge levels of radiation.

He said large swathes of the world could face being without power for several months, although he said that was unlikely.

He said that a more likely scenario would be places which have "fragile" power grids would be without power and access to electronic devices for hours, possibly days.

He said preparations were similar to those of a hurricane, where authorities knew a problem was going to occur but did not know how serious it would be.

"I think the issue is now that modern society is so dependant on electronics, mobile phones and satellites, much more so than the last time this occurred," he said.

"There is a severe economic impact from this. We take it very seriously. The economic impact could be like a large, major hurricane or storm."

Two years ago, the National Academy of Sciences said that power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications could "all be knocked out by intense solar activity."

It said that a powerful solar storm could cause "twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina."

Fisher said precautions could be taken including creating back up systems for hospitals and power grids and allow development on satellite "safe modes."

"If you know that a hazard is coming "¦ and you have time enough to prepare and take precautions, then you can avoid trouble," he added.

Fisher is the Science Mission Director at NASA headquarters.  His department investigates the Sun's influence on the earth by using dozens of satellites to study the threat.


Image Caption: A full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010. False colors trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 Kelvin, or 107,540 F); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1 million Kelvin, or 1,799,540 F). Credit: NASA/Goddard/SDO AIA Team


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