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Posted at 12:45 PM ET, 03/09/2011

Space weather: Are we ready for a solar strike?


A powerful solar eruption on Valentine’s day (Feb. 14), the strongest solar flare in four or five years, led to to brilliant auroral displays and some disruptions in radio communications. Image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Almost two years ago I asked the question, “Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know it?” The answer then and even more so now could very well be a scary “yes” - even within the next few years - as an increase in solar activity coincides with the increasing vulnerability of technology-dependent societies to powerful solar storms.

Moreover, while one is not inevitable, should there be a solar strike capable of causing widespread blackouts and crippling disruptions of satellilte and radio communications, it’s likely there would be little advance notice, and currently there is virtually no capability to shield much of the planet and virtually no planning on the books to recover from the potentially disastrous consequences.

This is the first part of a series of posts aimed at informing readers about the threat posed by space weather. Part 1 addresses the background and nature of the threat, including why ostensibly responsible government officials and agencies have only recently showed an active interest (most likely too little and too late). Part 2 discusses some of the basic elements of space weather via brief descriptions of various solar phenomena, including quantifiable indices (think tornado and hurricane categories) that describe their intensity and possible impacts on Earth, its atmosphere and near-space environment. And Part 3 looks more closely at the potential effects on life as we know it and what can and cannot be done to protect and prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Beyond this series, CWG will closely monitor space weather conditions from a variety of sources and provide close to real-time coverage of any prospective threats and official warnings (as we do for snowstorms).

Keep reading for the rest of Part 1 of this series...

The solar flare that erupted from the sun on Valentine’s Day - the strongest solar eruption in four or five years - was a loud and clear wake-up call to the potentially dire threat of solar storms as we ramp up to the next peak in solar activity expected in the 2012-2013 timeframe (solar activity peaks approximately every 11 years). The resulting torrent of charged particles emanating from the sun arrived days later at the outer limits of Earth’s atmosphere where it interacted with Earth’s magnetic field, causing a geomagnetic storm and creating spectacular auroras.

Luckily, the only disruptive consequences were interruptions in radio communications in the western Pacific Ocean and parts of Asia, which caused airlines to reroute some polar flights to avoid radio outages. But experts say that more potent solar storms - the kind that may occur as solar activity peaks in the next few years - have the potential to wreak long-lasting havoc on electric power supply and communications infrastructure around the globe.

Coincidentally, this episode of space weather immediately preceded a Feb. 19 session (which I attended) on space weather at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Washington. The consensus of a panel of distinguished scientists was that the Valentine’s Day event was minimal (”a solar hiccup”) compared to the serious threat space weather is becoming. One need look no further than the title of the session (announced several months before the meeting) to get a sense of the degree of concern - “Space Weather: The Next Big Solar Storm Could Be a Global Katrina.”

On the potential for a severe solar storm to take down telecommunications and power grids, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco said, “This is not a matter of if; it’s simply a matter of when and how big.” Other experts warned that the United States must take the space storm threat seriously; adverse space weather is one of the principal threats to modern human technology; the world is overdue for a ferocious space storm that could knock out communications satellites, ground aircraft and trigger blackouts lasting months to years; and that no single or series of earthly weather phenomena, earthquakes, volcanoes or tsunamis - even if occurring simultaneously - would come close to the possible devastating effects worldwide of extreme space weather.

Furthermore, as the panelists discussed, such an event would come with very little advance warning, since forecasting of space weather is in its infancy, and currently specific events are only predicted once a solar storm is observed to be headed toward Earth and just a few days out. Predictions as to whether a major hit is more likely than not are limited to about 12 hours in advance (at most).

Perhaps the most important (and most disconcerting) news from the discussion was that the United States, Europe, and other technologically advanced societies are currently not prepared to significantly mitigate the effects of, or effectively recover from, the potentially drastic consequences of a “big one.” This is despite a 2008 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (which served as the basis for my post nearly two years ago) that emphasized the potential economic and societal impacts of the disruption of critical technological systems by severe space weather, including consequences “devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general.”

Yet only recently have government officials and agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency within the Department of Homeland Security, appeared to take the threats of solar weather seriously. It seems that only when it became clear during the first half of 2010 that we were heading out of the record minimum in solar activity toward the next maximum did urgency begin to propagate from scientists to responsible government agencies. And only with the Valentine’s Day wake-up call has the general public begun to take notice.

The final remarks at the AAAS panel included a plea to “please don’t panic ... Please don’t leave the room and tell everybody that space weather will kill us tomorrow.” This drew a few laudable guffaws. Some press representatives with whom I talked with agreed that the apparent purpose of this message - beyond the concern of real overreaction - was to divert attention from the belatedness of interest on the part of government agencies and policymakers.

In a similar vein, at a recent briefing on the prospective NOAA FY2012 budget, Lubchenco strongly hinted at concern that mitigating and planning for a worst-case scenario during the coming solar maximum would come only from “experience” - i.e., after the fact. This too drew smiles and quiet laughs from several in the audience (including myself) in recognition that anything that could be done now is almost certainly far too little and too late.

Should we avoid disaster this time around in the solar cycle, perhaps advances in forecasting and more attention to preparation will put us in a better position next time (in 11 years or so).

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