The Tech Herald

Solar storms could cause 'global Katrina' says UK scientific advisor

by Steven Mostyn - Feb 23 2011, 15:41

NASA snapshot of last week's eruption. Image: NASA.

Always willing to cuddle up to a good bit of fear-mongering, we were thrilled to read the comments of the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, John Beddington, who has this week warned that increased solar storm activity could create a “global Katrina”.

“This issue of space weather has got to be taken seriously,” said Beddington during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“We’ve had a relatively quiet [period] in space weather and we can expect that quiet period to end,” he added. “Over the same time, over that period, the potential vulnerability of our [electrical] systems has increased dramatically.”

Short of wearing a poorly scrawled ‘The End is Nigh’ sandwich board, Beddington suggested that heavy solar turbulence is likely to adversely affect orbiting communication satellites, global electricity grids, and all manner of devices operating with GPS technology.

In terms of potential damage—from a financial perspective—Beddington believes the world could be left facing recovery costs of up to $2 trillion USD (approximately 1.2 trillion GBP) if hit by a big enough storm.

The star at the centre of our solar system has established a fluctuating activity cycle of around 11 years, and scientists expect the current cycle to peak at some point during 2013.

For those not up to speed on astronomical events, a solar storm consists of onrushing electromagnetic radiation formed whenever the sun emits a solar flare. These galactic storm clouds then ionise the planet’s atmosphere, which can wreak havoc with satellite platforms.

Around 24 hours after the initial solar flare, a coronal mass ejection (plasma) then impacts the magnetosphere, which, beyond causing a widespread lightshow in the sky, is capable of delivering widespread electrical blackouts as currents surge along high-tension electricity lines and through vulnerable transformers, capacitors and oil pipelines.

Beddington’s warning comes a week after the Earth was hit by the strongest solar storm in four years.

Although everyday life didn’t grind to a halt, airlines were forced to reroute flights away from polar-regions due to the possibility of crippled radio transmissions, while communications in the Western Pacific Ocean and parts of Asia were also temporarily knocked out.

And, cheap gags aside, the UK’s chief scientific advisor isn’t the only figure of note within the world of science who’s worried about the effects of future storm activity.

Moreover, Jane Lubchenco, boss of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has said the U.S. needs to be better prepared in order to avoid the loss of communications and electrical power.

“This is not a matter of if, it’s simply a matter of when and how big,” said Lubchenco during the meeting. “We have every reason to expect we’re going to be seeing more space weather in the coming years, and it behooves us to be smart and to be prepared.”

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